"No offence, I’m just being honest…" Honesty or bullying? – know the difference

"No offence, I’m just being honest…"

We've all heard, something like this… the above phrase followed by "you are ugly", "you are wrong", or "you are annoying", etc. with an underlying unspoken tone that it is said for our own good, so we need to take it in.

Why then, in most cases, don’t we feel happy or grateful for such an ‘opportunity of growth and self-development’, but more likely hurt and devastated?

Let’s look at a statement: "I’m just being honest, you are too fat". (please replace with an appropriate personal example: lazy, careless, not intelligent, need some help, I hate you).

The common thinking process goes a bit like this: If someone says they are honest, it means that they are telling the truth.

First of all we need to see the difference between ‘being honest’ and ’telling the truth’

The truth is related to facts – you are 5,6 tall and weigh 10st. Your BMI therefore is…. It has no emotional tone, and focuses on information giving. In usual conversations we rarely possess such knowledge, so what we call ‘the truth’, is usually our view, not factual information.

Honesty is an expression of our inner view, conviction or feeling.
It can be seen as inner honesty towards self and our values, or as an attempt to  make the outer expression a true reflection of the inner feeling or view - ‘I say what I mean and I mean what I say’.
Honesty - like any other quality, for example being tidy or fearless – has no absolute value of being good or bad. All depends on the circumstances and the context.

So, what about the apparently honest statement "I’m just being honest, you are too fat"? To answer that question we must recognise the different shades of honesty.

Three shades of being honest

1. The darkest shade – ‘rubbing one’s face in truth’

The intention behind this shade is to say what I want without compassion or taking responsibility for the consequences of my statement for the recipient. Often there is no real intention to help them. The main purpose of my statement is gratification of my inner need - to punish, to get rid of discomfort, to take blame away from myself or simply: To be right.

By starting with a qualifier "no offence, I am being honest" I give the message that because of my declared good intentions you are not allowed to feel resistant or hurt. The fact that it comes across as cruel and hurtful to you, the recipient, is not of my concern.

The statement "I’m just being honest, you are too fat" is an example of such darkest shade of honesty. This is the shade closest to bullying and we need to avoid making them at all costs. Being on the receiving end of such a statement we have all the right to feel hurt, and not grateful. We are entitled not to take it with us at all.

2. The medium shade – ‘the nicest possible way’

In this case we are also following our need to ‘let it out’ for whatever ‘good reason’ but accept the fact that it may be an unpleasant consequence to the recipient. Sometimes it is inevitable, like giving feedback to a colleague or reprimanding a child. The art of mastering this shade of honesty is to be as clear and factual as possible, rather than as nice as possible at the risk of causing some hurt and still not giving a message.

The above statement translated to the medium shade would be: "I am aware that you are really ambitious and want to progress in your career. I wonder if losing a bit of weight would make you more credible as a health consultant."

Although the statement is driven by my need to make my life at work easier, there is also objective truth and concern for the impact. Now being on the receiving end may not be pleasant but it doesn’t feel like a character assassination and we may actually feel that we want to think about it.

3. The lightest shade – ‘will it help YOU if I say it’

The underlying intention of this shade of honesty is compassion and care for the other, rather than my own need to feel better or more comfortable.

Imagine sitting in a crowded tube carriage next to a homeless person whose body odour is, quite frankly, ghastly. You have an overbearing need to say something like "no offence, I am just being honest mate, you stink!"

Yes, it is true. There is a smell. And it is true, you suffer a lot. But how will saying it make things better for you? And, more importantly, how will it help your homeless co-commuter who most likely cannot do much about it?

Similarly, in our case of the person who I think is ‘too fat’, I need to consider carefully:

  • Is my opinion actually worth anything? (do I have any sound knowledge about right body weight? or maybe I am weight obsessed myself and projecting my fears on you?)
  • Is my intention to just make me feel better or to be helpful to you as well? (maybe you actually are happy about your weight; or maybe you are not, but you are going through divorce and hearing it will only devastate your self-esteem even more?)

Depending on the answers I may decide that the best option is not to say anything, as my need to be honest will not actually help them.
I may focus on being honest with myself instead, asking why I really need/want to say anything.

If in the end I decide it is in their best interest to know, I will try to be as kind and caring as possible. I might say:

"I know you are going through a lot nowadays, and I worry that you may not have time to think about looking after yourself and eat healthy food. Is there anything I can do to help? Maybe we can have lunches together, and I can prepare things every other day? It could make a difference to how you are feeling."

It may happen that after the first sentence it becomes clear that they don’t want to talk. In that case I just leave them be. This is a big difference to the darkest shade of honesty, where I would insist that they listen to ‘the truth’ no matter what.

As difficult as it is, my aspiration is to use in the lightest shade of honesty as much as possible, and to master the art of kind and clear communication whenever things have to be said within the medium shade.

Whenever I feel tempted to start the sentence with "I am just being honest", or whenever I am about to fall into pieces having been hit by such a sentence, there is a red light coming on…

I will not be bullied and I will not be a bully!

In those moments I remember the Sufi saying:

“Before you speak,
Let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate ask yourself:
Is it true?
At the second ask:
Is it necessary?
At the third gate ask:
Is it kind?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London WC1A & SW16
Written by Anna Jezuita, (MBACP) Relationship Reconciliation,Counselling, Mindfulness
London WC1A & SW16

I help my clients make changes they need to live the lives they want.I am passionate about building resilience and self-confidence in my clients , so they can  overcome life challenges when they happen. During the current Covid-19 restrictions I am seeing clients via online video platforms like...

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