Truthful evaluations

Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty

Today’s post is about an interesting sub-type of lying that Sam Harris calls “Faint Praise”. He uses the example of friends’ requests for an honest evaluation of something they are working on, but it could as easily be a request for our opinion on any topic important to them.

Regarding professional situations, things work out best if our bosses, co-workers, and friends are truthful with us, and if we are willing to hear and consider their thoughts.

One example of the usefulness of “brutal” honesty comes from my own life, specifically the unpleasant but important day that I got sacked from my first real job. The manager who fired me was specific about my shortcomings, and it woke me up to my lack of seriousness about what was expected in return for my salary. I was shocked, but in the long run, it was extremely helpful.

Carolyn Hax (Washington Post) is my favorite advice columnist. She often deals with questions about how to respond truthfully while delivering minimum pain, e.g., “My friend wants my honest opinion about her (unsuitable) new boyfriend. What should I say?” Carolyn unfailingly responds with some relevant wisdom, like “Stick with the facts. Say it makes you uncomfortable that he said X, or that he demonstrated Y undesirable quality in Z situation. Avoid sweeping statements, and allow for the possibility that you might be mistaken.”

The same caveats may be applied below. If you have to honestly report a negative opinion, make it as specific as possible, identify any remediable elements, and/or suggest a different approach, if you can.

(from a section called Faint Praise in Sam Harris’ essay, Lying):
There have been moments in my life when I was devoted to a project that was simply doomed, in which I had months—in one case, years—invested, and where honest feedback could have spared me an immense amount of wasted effort. At other times, I received frank criticism just when I needed it and was able to change course quickly, knowing that I had avoided a lot of painful and unnecessary work. The difference between these two fates is hard to exaggerate. Yes, it can be unpleasant to be told that we have wasted time, or that we are not performing as well as we imagined, but if the criticism is valid, it is precisely what we most need to hear to find our way in the world.

And yet we are often tempted to encourage others with insincere praise. In this we treat them like children — while failing to help them prepare for encounters with those who will judge them like adults. I’m not saying that we need to go out of our way to criticize others. But when asked for our opinion, we do our friends no favors by pretending not to notice flaws in their work, especially when those who are not their friends are bound to notice these same flaws. Saving our friends disappointment and embarrassment is a great kindness. And if we have a history of being honest, our praise and encouragement will actually mean something.

I have a friend who is a very successful writer. Early in his career, he wrote a script that I thought was terrible, and I told him so. That was not easy to do, because he had spent the better part of a year working on it — but it happened to be the truth. Now, when I tell him that I love something he has written, he knows that I love it. He also knows that I respect his talent enough to tell him when I don’t. I am sure there are people in his life he can’t say that about. Why would I want to be one of them?

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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