Updated: Apr 2, 2021
The problem with prefaces: practicing openness in the workplace.
"To be honest, I think that’s a terrible idea."
"To be honest, I prefer using Microsoft Word".
When someone starts a sentence with the words ‘to be honest,’ we know it’s time to brace for impact or commence an eye-roll.
‘To be honest’ is either used as a prelude for stating an unpopular opinion or an outright criticism. The speaker making themselves feel better about their tough or impolite message because they proudly announced it was coming with a warning (‘To be honest, this report is a piece of crap’). Or the phrase has become a verbal tic, buying us time to think of what we want to say, like an ‘um’, or ‘er’ and whatever follows actually wasn’t that big a deal at all (‘To be honest, this report is good’). Whether the phrase is used as an intentional signifier, or a verbal tic it poses a number of issues in the workplace.
After all, aren’t we all honest? I challenge you to find anyone who lists dishonesty as one of their personal values. There’s a societal expectation that everyone is honest, particularly in a professional or family setting. If conversations are already honest, the phrase is redundant, and at worse the phrase infers that you have been lying about everything up until that point.
Even if we are honest, that doesn’t mean we are always open and transparent.
Being open and transparent can be challenging in the workplace. We each have a different tolerance for opening up or being vulnerable to our colleagues. We understand that everyone protects themselves and makes their work lives as comfortable as they can. So if you want to signal to your colleague that you’re putting yourself out there, replace ‘to be honest’ with ‘to be open with you…’ or ‘if I am being fully transparent... ’
The other question is, why are you using a preface in the first place? If you are aware the other person won’t want to hear what you have to say, ask yourself whether the warning adds value to the conversation. If someone asks you for feedback, or an opinion they have already opened the door to your input. If giving the feedback makes you feel vulnerable, then better to be honest about that:
‘I feel nervous giving this feedback, because I’m not sure how you will respond.’
If you’re using ‘to be honest’ as a filler, try and catch yourself saying it and notice how often it comes up. If you need time to think, allow the silence, or let the other person know:
‘Can I have a moment to think about that?’
Instead of starting your sentences with ‘To be honest,’ launch right into actual honesty. It might feel a little scary at first, but we promise like everything else, all it takes is practice.
See also: ‘to tell the truth’, and ‘honestly’.