Monday, 6 May 2013

Talk To Me - 6 - The Truth

I mentioned last week that effective communication must be honest. Now, as you know, all of this is leading up to the question of when not to speak, and there is without doubt a time to withhold the truth. There must be those little white lies we call tact that hold societies together. That excepted, honesty really is the best policy when it comes to communication.

Before you start being truthful to others, you have to be truthful to yourself. Over the years I have explored this phenomenon, looking those who lie consistently to themselves, I am convinced that it's one of the greatest problems faced by humans on a personal basis. Not only do people actually tell lies to themselves, but frequently do so to justify irrational behaviour.

I've been studying the work of Dr Tim Wilson, whose book Strangers to Ourselves goes into detail about the necessities and benefits of talking ourselves into things, telling ourselves it's better than it really is. In other words positive spin. I personally believe in positive thinking, and throughout history (q.v. Pandora's Box) we have been told that hope is something very precious. All well and good.

It is when even this apparently useful tactic gets taken too far that it can be troublesome. Two characters we talk about about are Pollyanna and Mr Mickawber.

Pollyanna was the eponymous heroine of a children's book by Eleanor H. Porter, a parable about optimism, and for its time and audience not a bad attempt at the ideal. Still, we have come to use the term to disparage those who believe that toast always lands buttered side up. Perhaps it's a bit unfair to sneer at that level of optimism, however unrealistic it is, the world really needs a quotient of sunny people, as it affects the attitude of everyone around them.

A tad more dangerous is the attitude of the Dickens character Mr Mickawber, whose optimism leads to foolish choices and keeps his family in a constant state of lack. For Mickawber it does all work out OK in the end, but we all know a Mickaber, who has lived on false hopes for so long that really all he has left is a positive attitude. Some may argue that this is a wealth greater than money, but food still has to be put on the table.

So, there's a limit, even to positive attitude, because one has to be proactive to thrive. It's a bit dodgy to base the future entirely on the hope of something better turning up. It is positively disastrous when one's retirement plan involves winning the lottery.

There is a truly dysfunctional version of this, where the attitude isn't so much positive as stagnant. We refer to it as stuck in a rut etc, and unfortunately it's a situation many find themselves in. They aren't really content with their lot, but the spin doctors in their head, instead of telling them "this is OK", are saying "this is all there is". Whenever I talk about this I like to refer to a line in a song which goes "the strong give up and move on, while the weak give up and stay". Knowing when to cut and run is a defence against the self-deception of inertia.

But we fear change, don't we? So the big lie here revolves around staying put, and justifying that. It's not easy, trying to decide where honesty lies here, or whether it's better to "bloom where you are planted", or run for the hills. The trick therefore is to work at being honest with yourself, and find out what it is you really want.

Being the funny creatures we are we talk ourselves out of things as well as into them. Self-doubt is a form of dishonesty and requires just as much intervention. Not least because it often leads to telling lies to others.

You see, before you can be honest with the rest of the world, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to find that balance of realism, you have to understand your own mind. It is harder to delude yourself than it is to lie convincingly to other people, so if you have achieved self-deception, you are a potential liar.

I suppose the best examples of this are the charismatic religious leaders, and the charlatans in the world of psychic insight and healing. While some are simply conmen, others truly believe in their abilities, and it is this belief that allows them to be so convincing. Are any of them genuine? Matter of opinion, but there certainly are plenty of well-intentioned individuals who are utterly convinced that they have such powers.

Similar are the get-rich-quick and pyramid scheme participants, and the hawkers of certain spurious "alternative" remedies. Other than those at the top of the chain (who know they are onto a good thing) these industries are entirely based not only on the credulity of customers, but of the salesmen too. Even something as innocuous as Tupperware requires one to believe in the product, and the best salespeople in the world are not the pushiest, but the most sincere.

I dwell on all of this to point out that much of the lying we do in communication isn't intentional. It's a learned way of behaving.

How many times have you visited a doctor to discuss a problem, and he greets you with "Good Morning, and how are you?" and you say "Oh fine thanks!"

So why are you there?!

It's habit. We talk without thinking. It has even been said that the correct response to "How are you?" is "How are you?". It has become a ritual, a nonsense. But our conversation of rubbish goes way beyond the preliminaries. We nod and smile at all sorts of things we don't agree with, and we show feigned interest in conversations, while our mind is elsewhere. We are trained by society and good manners to lie through our teeth much of the time.

I'll save the solutions for this for later, I just wanted to make you think about how much we lie.

If the object of communication is to express ourselves, then that is what we should set out to do. Otherwise we may as well gibber like the apes we are.

People fear truth. If you admit things to other people it then becomes IMPOSSIBLE to keep up the self-delusions. It bursts the comfort bubbles. If you can get past that everyone agrees it's "freeing", but if you've been keeping up a lie a long time, it is quite a traumatic thing to go through. For this reason, obviously, it's best to be honest from the outset.

In a discussion, with an aim, presumably to solve a problem, nothing will be achieved when the truth is not the main item on the agenda. So there are two stages, deciding what the truth is, and then overcoming your fear of it. Does the truth hurt? Sometimes, but lies hurt more. There's more than one way to phrase things, and that's where tact and diplomacy comes in, but if you keep saying "yes" when you mean "no", or vice versa, you'll be the one to suffer.

Quite apart from not achieving what you actually want, sooner or later your lies will get found out. Then you look a fool, or worse. Trust is lost. Nobody listens to known liars. Even politicians can only pull the wool over our eyes so many times.

I urge you to think about your relationships, be they personal, professional, or societal. Unless you have a valid reason to be less than totally honest, it isn't communication unless it's the truth.

Let's have a quick look at the masters of lies:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Crap...okay, let's fix the errors...To be honest, in the corporate world, is to commit career suicide. Corporate world has no room for truth; sad but true ;) You have a better chance, when rolling the truth die, if you work for a smaller independent business, although even there, you must be able to judge your audience, so to speak. We may all say we prefer honesty but in reality, who is really ready to hear it. (Sorry, I was trying to do too many things at one time!)

  3. How disgusting! They keep exceeding my expectations for evil, Canadian style. How do I share the video?

  4. Oh, and wise words. I found the share thingy.