Toxic honesty: when does being ‘truthful’ become aggression?

“I just say it like it is.” “I’m just telling the truth.” “I don’t suffer fools gladly.”

These are all lines I hear regularly in my courses on dealing with difficult people. Invariably the speaker is someone who has been “sent” to the course and is coming across as aggressive and hostile in the workplace. These people claim they are simply being direct and expressing what they think. In reality, though, they are using so-called honesty as a weapon. Their direct, frank approach invades others’ personal boundaries and creates an attacking tone, which colours their feedback.

My response to these people is that the workplace is an environment in which social norms and boundaries define what is appropriate communication. Those norms determine how messages shall be framed, worded and delivered if they are to be perceived as socially acceptable. So when, exactly, does an honest statement become brutally frank and aggressive? There are four key indicators to look out for.


Key indicator 1: The speaker’s intention is to hurt or insult the receiver

The key question to consider here is whether the feedback or honest statement serves a useful purpose. Is it simply the speaker expressing their personal opinion, or venting? Or is there an intention to provide honest and appropriate feedback which the listener can use to change? Often the intention of the speaker is more clearly expressed through the voice tone and body language than through the actual message.


Key indicator 2: There is nothing the recipient can do to change

Useful feedback and helpful honesty provide information which a listener can use to shift their behaviour. Aggressive criticism, on the other hand, targets personal characteristics. The listener is powerless to change. For example, a course participant once told me he had given a colleague the “honest” feedback, “You’re too thick to do this job.” He claimed this was simply the truth; that his colleague was stupid and incapable of learning. If, indeed, this was the case the participant’s honesty served no purpose. What, after all, could his colleague do with this feedback?


Key indicator 3: The statement marks a negative switch point

This is a point at which someone who has initiated a psychological game introduces an unexpected element to the conversation in order to create confusion. For example, a man might give his partner the feedback, “That colour suits you,” before introducing the aggressive switch, “It’s a pity it makes you look so fat.” This is a classic example of the tactics bullies use to get their targets off-guard before introducing a verbal attack.


Key indicator 4: The speaker’s voice tone or body language is hostile or aggressive

Tonality can make a huge difference to the way a message is perceived. If a speaker is using a hostile tone and speaking in short, clipped sentences, it’s highly unlikely that their so-called honest feedback is going to be received as benevolent and useful. Body language signs to look out for include finger pointing, fake smiles and hostile facial expressions.

About the author of these tips

Eleanor is a people skills expert. She trains and coaches people in high intellect professions – such as academia, education, project management, research and development and engineering. Her expertise in teaching social and emotional intelligence skills makes Eleanor a highly sought-after facilitator. Eleanor holds qualifications in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.