Compassionate communitcate deb palmer george

“I’m just being brutally honest…”

More and more, I hear the adjective “brutal” used to describe someone’s approach to giving feedback. That breaks my heart. Words have meanings, even words that have been co-opted in pop culture still carry the roots of their original meaning. Brutal means “animalistic, unintelligent, unreasoning, fierce, cruel, inhuman.”

In Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ) we explore the neurochemistry of conversations. A key element of conversation being the words we choose along with the accompanying tone and body language. What we’re learning in C-IQ, with greater evidence every day, is how the words we choose create the reality we live in.


I grew up in the old days when the prevailing wisdom about words was “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” People might call you names, but it wouldn’t actually hurt you. But words did cause hurt.

And the words that hurt us on Tuesday continued inflicting pain on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, anytime you thought about it or saw the person again. So we learned different ways to deal with the hurt. Some learned to retreat and turn their hurt inward while others learned to attack and turn their hurt outward. All because they were experiencing a universal human reality, words actually activate neurochemistry. Words can cause hurt in the speaker and listener.


When it comes to feedback, what is our intention behind our words? To help or to hurt?

In my workshops on Giving and Receiving Feedback, this is the first step we cover. Clarifying your intentions. If the intention is to help, then we move on to the next steps. If the intention is to hurt, then we stay on the intention step until we can find the helpful intention that’s the reason for the feedback.

Sometimes we find there there is no helpful intention. There are times when someone wants to give another person “feedback” when in reality what they want is to take their own distress or anger out on someone else. That is not feedback.

What is feedback are specific observations intended to help someone understand:

  • What works to continue doing or do more of,
  • What is not working to stop doing, do differently or better.

For something to be helpful it needs to be true, useful, necessary, and kind. These are longstanding principles of communication rooted in ancient wisdom from cultures around the world.

  • True means it is based in observation or evidence.
  • Useful means it is something the person can do something about.
  • Necessary means it has relevance to a value or goal that matters to the individual and the organization.
  • Kind means the language chosen is respectful and constructive, intended to make it easier for someone to hear even the most difficult evidence.

The last point is essential, make it easy for someone to hear even the most difficult information. When difficult information is delivered with compassion, there is the greatest possibility of the person understanding their situation and taking positive action to move toward the desired result.

When difficult information is delivered with compassion, there is the greatest possibility of the person understanding their situation and taking positive action to move toward the desired result.


So where does “honesty” fit in all of this?

I’ve found that when it comes to feedback, people generally include 2 types of information under the category of honesty, 1) telling the truth about facts or data or 2) telling the truth about their judgments or evaluation of a person or a situation.

Both are necessary, the key is to be clear about which you are communicating. When you have facts or data, clarify that. When you have an evaluation to share, clarify that too.

This brings us back to “brutal honesty.” What I’ve discovered is that what people really mean by brutal honesty is “I’ve got a harsh judgment about you that I want you to accept as fact” or “I’m angry or fearful about something and I want you to be as distressed or afraid as I am” Neither of these is feedback.

These are both situations that call for us to pause and get to the root of our feelings and judgments so that we can communicate in a way that is compassionate and constructive. Brutal language puts people into the “survival state” of the brain where all they can think about is saving themselves.

Constructive language helps people access the “executive state” of the brain where they can think expansively and creatively. This is the place of openness and accountability, where the greatest capacity for change exists.


During my feedback workshops, someone will usually ask, “What about consequences of people’s behavior? It sounds like this might be sugar-coating.”

I’m always grateful for that question because it gives me a chance to clarify. Compassion and consequences can go hand-in-hand. We can be compassionate in words, tone, and body language while we help someone understand the consequences of their actions. While brutality hurts and disconnects us, compassion heals and connects us.

Every day in organizations, from the executive offices to front-line customer service, people are accomplishing things and they are also making mistakes. When the results of people’s actions don’t work, the feedback we give them can bring about further hurt or it can bring about healing. It can make us better or inflict scars.

Hurt moves people away from each other and into blame, shame or attack mode. Healing moves people toward each other into openness, cooperation, and progress mode. The bottom line of feedback is this:

  • When the intention of our feedback is to hurt, all that is possible is further hurt.
  • When the intention of our feedback is to help, extraordinary things are possible.

What does your organization need more of? What do you need more of in your life?

I hope the underlying philosophy of feedback along with the feedback practice outlined here proves useful. Please share your questions or wisdom with us all in the comments!