Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.

Some months ago I was asked to provide some constructive criticism to someone I have known for a long time. So, I gave it. I thought I was detailed, fair and honest. It did not go over well. The requester became immediately defensive and shot back a few lengthy emails telling me why I was wrong. I found that to be odd but I didn’t dispute the emails and just let it go.

A month or so later this topic came up in a conversation with a friend.  He responded, “I never give people honest feedback. I just tell them what they want to hear.” I was a bit taken aback by this because I was relating only on my own level. I like honest criticism. I appreciate it. But I saw some benefits of my friend’s position of never giving honest feedback. He alleged that he was setting himself up for success and I was setting myself up for occasional failure. But what if someone relies on your validation to their detriment? Could providing validation have the unintended result of eroding one’s credibility?

Obviously I had some issues with the tactical aspects of this problem. I changed my approach and went back to the equitable arguments. Is it right, or fair, to give someone validation in lieu of criticism? My friend seemed to think that no one really asked for honest criticism. I knew that to be false because I do. I began to narrow down on the request for feedback. People will signal if they want validation. Take these examples:

“Can you read over this and tell me what you honestly think?”
“What do you think of this dress? I really like it.”

It’s pretty clear that the latter example is calling for validation. But, absent some sort of signal, what should one do? Should I view this on a sliding scale depending on how close the relationship is to me? Should I err on the side of validating or being honest? As Ned Flanders would say, “It’s a dilly of a pickle.”

What I did learn from this is that there isn’t a one size fits all answer. My approach and my friend’s approach carried risk but each of us believed that we were mitigating the risk as much as we could. So I’m modifying my approach going forward. I am trying to pay attention more in those situations and performing some quick mental calculus to achieve the right result and erring on the side of telling my honest opinion. Why? When balancing the risk reward of each proposition, I’m willing to wear the consequences to be honest. Other people will balance differently. I guess I’ll find out if it works for me.


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