A topic recently came up on the Scribophile forums, posing the question:

When critiquing someone else’s work, is it better to be honest or tactful? 

The overwhelming response seemed to be “Brutal honesty is the only way to learn”, but I had a big problem with the original premise. Honesty and tact are not on opposite sides of a spectrum, but in a world that has almost entirely abandoned the concept of politeness, the definition of those words has become hopelessly muddled.

First, what’s purpose of communication? We communicate to transfer ideas from one person to another. Anything that confuses or prevents those ideas from being properly communicated is counterproductive. This is why, when speaking with someone who only understands English, attempting to converse in French is probably going to get you nowhere. It’s important to speak a language that the other person can understand.

I think the driving factor behind the “brutal honesty” attitude is the assumption that in conversation, the burden of responsibility lies entirely on the recipient of our ideas. If the recipient finds our ideas difficult to accept, they should be more open-minded. They should be thicker-skinned. They should get a handle on their ego.

The word should can be problematic for a few reasons, the greatest being that the way things should be often has no relationship to the way things are. People are sensitive. They have difficulty accepting new ideas. They resent things that wound their pride. This is human nature, and you’ll find these things (in varying degrees) in everyone you communicate with. Ignoring these facts in favor of the shoulds is like insisting that French is a perfectly acceptable language, and the fellow who only speaks English just needs to educate himself. While this is probably true, it also does nothing to help you get your point across.

So, who do you want to communicate with? The person you’re talking to, or the educated, open-minded, thick-skinned person you think they should be? If your answer is the latter, you’ve completely missed the point of communication.

While discussing this topic, online and off, one argument repeatedly comes up: If you pull your punches while talking to someone, they’ll never learn to put their pride aside and actually learn something. So now the discussion shifts from communication to the overt shaping and improvement of another person’s character. Consider the fact that if you can’t communicate effectively, you have very little chance of influencing another person’s mentality.

Assuming your goal is to communicate effectively, let’s go back to the original question: Honesty or tact? Well, what exactly is tact?

Tact is not the art of bending the truth to pander to another’s ego, or a clever concealment of what you really think. Tact is the ability to communicate your ideas without giving offense.

Giving offense during communication is like throwing up a roadblock on the I-90. You drastically reduce your chances of getting your ideas through to the other person. The immediate response is: “Well, that’s their problem.” All right, perhaps it is. Does this fact help us communicate? No, not really.

So, ask yourself: Do you want to be morally justified, or do you want to get your ideas across?

Next up: We’ve discussed the Why, here’s the How.

~ RM

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