Inviting Honesty: How to Get the Truth from Anyone

Imagine that you have this great idea for a party. You plan the most resplendent décor and exquisite cuisine, lavish flower arrangements, and only the best in lighting and live music. You’ve diligently prepared every detail. Unfortunately, your party isn’t going to be much fun if you skip one essential step: sending out your invitations.

Most people value honesty and recognize it as an important aspect of healthy relationships. However, it takes some wishful thinking on our part to assume that others are always going to be honest with us—our closest friends, family members, and partners included—simply because we want them to be. This would be like expecting all our favorite people to attend our party without inviting them to it first.

Let’s propose that the party we want to throw is honest communication. If others fear we will react emotionally to the truth (and then act out towards them with anger, resentment, blaming or criticisms—in essence punishing them for being honest), then simply asking for honesty won’t be enough. As I discussed in “Lying Is an Act of Generosity”, most people can be justifiably hesitant to tell the truth sometimes. Why? Because they’re not confident that the truth will go over so well and, to avoid the strain of possible conflict, they may choose the apparent path of least resistance by lying. To inspire honesty from someone, it takes something more than asking; it takes a specific type of invitation.

Such an invitation might sound something like this: I sincerely want to know what you are thinking and feeling, whatever is true for you. You do not have to hold anything back for fear of upsetting me. If I react, which I may even if I don’t want to, I promise that I will take responsibility for my reaction and know that it has nothing to do with you. Even if I do not like what I hear, I will remember to be thankful that you were willing to be honest with me and to make this effort to help us build a closer relationship with one another.

An invitation like this one has two key components. First, you assure others that you will take responsibility for any emotional reaction you might have since, after all, you cannot guarantee that you will not react to the truth that is shared. But what you can guarantee is how you understand your reaction—not as a product of the truth itself, but as a product of your relationship to the truth (i.e. how well or poorly you are able to give the truth permission to be what it is). In taking responsibility for your emotional experience in this way, you allay others’ possible fears that you will punish or judge them in response to their disclosure. The second component is informing others that their honesty will be rewarded with gratitude, even if you do not like what you hear. You recognize that someone being honest with you is not always easy and you voice your advanced appreciation for this act of courage on their part. If you can convince someone that your invitation is sincere, your chances of receiving honesty are virtually 100%, the exception being when someone’s history of being punished for honesty is so extensive that they remain perpetually leery of such assurances and refuse to be swayed. Luckily, such occasions are exceedingly rare. A quick story…

I once had a client who suspected that her husband was cheating on her. She tried asking him to explain certain irregularities in his behavior and things that popped up as “red flags” to her. To each query, her husband always had an air-tight explanation. “I want to trust him,” my client told me. “But I don’t know if he’s being honest with me.” Then she asked, “How can I know for sure?” I explained to her that the best person to get the truth from was, of course, her husband. She scoffed at this, stating, “He’ll just tell me the same old thing, that I’m being insecure and it’s all in my head.” So, I gave her the tools for inviting honesty, and off she went. The next week, she came in and narrated what had happened. “I told him that I genuinely wanted him to be honest with me and that, although I might feel upset to learn that he had been with someone else, that I would not blame him and that we could work it out, if he wanted to. When I said this, he paused for a moment or two, then told me. Yes, he had been cheating on me!” I asked her what happened next, to which she quickly and proudly replied, “I packed my bags and left of course.”

Because my client was able to successfully invite honesty, she was finally able to access the truth. Was her invitation 100% sincere? No, it wasn’t, but she made a choice. Rather than continuing to endure her stressful state of uncertainty and doubt, she took command of her situation and obtained the information she had been seeking. All along, she knew exactly what her response was going to be if she discovered her husband’s infidelity and now she had achieved the clarity that had eluded her for so long. If she wanted, she could have followed through with her “promise” to work things out with her husband and grow the relationship forward from there. Ideally, inviting honesty isn’t about tricking others into disclosing secrets. Instead, it’s about taking a stand for honesty in a relationship so that you and your partner (or the other important people in your life) can grow closer to one another and sincerely build trust and transparency. But my point in sharing this example is this: inviting honesty works.

Others are always going to be more likely to attend a party of ours if they feel welcomed to attend and are sufficiently convinced that the party is going to be a rewarding experience. If someone accepts our invitation (choosing to be honest with us), and then we bombard them with anger or bitterness or hurt attributed to their “misdeeds”, what will happen? They’ll learn that our parties, actually, are not enjoyable or rewarding at all. Then, the next time we invite them to attend one, they’ll just so happen to have other plans. We basically will be teaching others to stop being honest with us. Yikes!

How you choose to respond to honesty does not only effect your present interaction, but will either diminish or increase the likelihood you’ll receive honesty from this person in the future. If you are trying to truly build an extraordinary relationship that will progress toward ever-increasing harmony and intimacy, whenever you invite honesty from others, be sincere and prepare to back your invitation up with action. Take responsibility for any emotional reactions you might have and express gratitude that the truth has been shared with you. After all, when you receive the truth, the main thing that changes is not reality itself (i.e. what’s true), but rather your knowledge of reality. And this knowledge, whether you are pleased with it or not, is always a helpful asset. Once you know the truth, you become better informed and can deal directly with the facts of your life rather than fictions, illusions, or unconfirmed hypotheses. Moving forward may not always be easy, but it is always possible when your invitation is sincere and you consciously nurture an atmosphere in your relationships where honest communication is fully supported. As you and your partner (or whomever) learn to communicate with complete openness and honesty, true intimacy is developed and the relationship then becomes truly extraordinary.