In an environment where the lies of some politicians and media appear to be effective strategies, it seems to be a good time to explore what we mean or understand by concepts such as truth, honesty and trust.
At it’s most basic there are situations where we have a choice between telling the truth and lying. Lying is essentially a short term strategy, while truth can be seen as a longer term strategy. However, if you are able to achieve your aims and move on from a situation lying can appear to be successful.
I tend to think of honesty as a skill, which we can get better at with practice and when we are skilful in our communication the truth is extremely valuable and powerful. This is a skill some of us fail to learn. For a few the skill that they learn is how to persuade through lying.
For the rest of us, perhaps the most useful thing is to learn how to tell the truth skilfully and how to deal with lies.
Honesty as a skill.
The first thing to recognise is that much of the truth is subjective. This means that there will often be multiple legitimate perspectives on any situation and understanding the boundary between what is subjectively true and what is subjectively untrue can be a question of perspective or differences between values. Just because we disagree with someone does not make them a liar.
Occasionally there can be an objective truth where there is no conflicting data and where facts are clear and we can say that this is the only possible version of the truth. More often there is conflicting data and we are then likely to choose the data that suits our world view.
Being honest is an exercise is constant self analysis, to calibrate our observations against our emotions and express our views more as questions or explorations than as statements. Where those views might upset another or incriminate ourselves, our challenge is to balance complete honesty with positive outcomes. The first person we have to be honest with, is ourselves, for some the challenge is about being objective enough regarding our strengths, for others it is about being objective enough about our weaknesses.
To do this sensitive conversations need to be rehearsed in our heads or with a third party who can help us to find the right phrase or expression. The language we use, the specific words, the order they are in and the intonation are incredibly important. Like any skill the more we practice it the better we get at it.
So while honesty is a skill it is also a discipline that we can choose to hold ourselves to. Most of the benefits of rigorous honesty accrue in terms of our own self image and self perception. The experience of transgressing our own values are feelings of shame, which erode our sense of self worth. The experience of overcoming a values challenge and supporting our values gives us pride and increases our confidence and our sense of self worth.
Spotting the lies
Most people lie out of habit more than malice. It is almost reflexive, like a naughty child caught with their hand in the sweetie jar. It is so common many people assume that everyone else lies with the same degree of conscience, and therefore it is OK (a rationalisation intended to protect self image). I am sometimes amazed by the casualness with which some people appear to adjust the truth – even when the truth would not appear to be challenging to tell.
Spotting these lies is easy when the statements don’t match your own observations, but harder when you have no observations for evidence. For these individuals it is just about calibration and knowing how much to trust them and what with. Just knowing how much and where to trust someone allows us to adjust our own behaviours to allow for their habits. We seldom need to call these people on their honesty and doing so can easily break a social relationship.
For closer relationships or where it becomes important to use the honesty skills above to help someone to recognise and adjust their habits, in their relationship with you, without blaming or offending them.
Some people lie much more strategically and on a far larger scale. Deliberately misrepresenting facts and reinterpreting events to suit their intentions. Lying on this level requires a built in level of self worth and regarding others as lacking worth, merely as pawns to the liars ambition. This world view can be described on a scale from egotistical through narcissism to psychopathy.
These individuals perceive everyone else as being engaged in the same dog eat dog competition, a brutally Darwinian interpretation of society. Either being honest is not one of their values, so they experience no shame when they are caught out or they have a facility to rationalise any situation entirely subjectively and in their own interests.
Dealing with these individuals in any balanced way is extremely difficult, so most of us are best off avoiding them as much as possible and we must certainly take responsibility for separately validating any claims before we act on them.
Of course there is a wide spectrum between these extremes. What is common is that all of us, no matter how honest or dishonest, are motivated by feelings of self worth. Those with honesty as a strong value will find it hard and uncomfortable to be dishonest. Those without honesty as a strong value can find it harder to be honest.
In the end it is not so much about spotting the lies as understanding the individual. As long as we can work out with reasonable accuracy how honest people are, we can trust them to be that honest and work with that. This is not about being judgemental, it is just about understanding those around us and setting our own expectations accordingly.
Perhaps the most useful approach to calibrating is noticing the extent and quality of listening. High quality listening is usually a sign that someone cares about others and cares about how they think and what they feel and believe. People who care about others are more likely to rate honesty more highly as a value. Within this there are also highly skilled deceivers who do listen and use the information they glean to manipulate, but this level of lying is unusual.
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