You Can Handle The Truth

In the climactic scene of the movie A Few Good Men, Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) demands the truth from a testifying Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson). Jack’s response is a cinema classic:

You can’t handle the truth!

It’s a mesmerizing scene which contains an interesting psychological tidbit.

People often rate honesty as the most important value and yet they sometimes struggle being honest with others because they fear it might cause hurt feelings. It’s as if there is a trade-off between being candid and being nice. A classic – if not a bit cartoonish – example of this trade-off is the question “Does this make me look fat?

A more practical – and important – example occurs in healthcare. When healthcare professionals communicate information to patients, they must strike a balance between being optimistic and providing facts. Patients usually want to know the reality of the situation without having to give up hope.

Recently researchers conducted experiments to compare the impact of being either honest or kind during difficult conversations. Over three days, the researchers documented the participants’ reflections on how they felt in both laboratory settings and in the field (aka ‘real life’). The results contradicted our beliefs:

[…] people significantly mispredict the consequences of communicating honestly: the experience of being honest is far more pleasurable, leads to greater levels of social connection, and does less relational harm than individuals expect.

The inference for the business world is obvious. As a manager, it’s difficult to give constructive performance feedback to an employee – especially since you don’t want to hurt their feelings. But the employee will likely feel grateful for the honesty and it’s the only real way their performance will improve.

In other words, we can handle the truth.

Leave a Reply

  1. In my experience, it’s hard, but when you do give tough feedback in a constructive way, it is always really appreciated.

    Most often the individual that needs to provide the ‘difficult’ feedback is not really thinking of the feelings of the other person, they are thinking about how difficult it will be for them to have the discussion. This is disguised as “I don’t want to hurt his/her feelings”.

  2. Great article and very important one which we all face often. I feel its about the practice and the good intentions, sooner or later it will reflect and become a habit in our approach.