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This Three-Word Phrase Is Subtly Undermining Your Authority

Sounding confident, transparent, and truthful doesn’t require any prefaces.

This Three-Word Phrase Is Subtly Undermining Your Authority
[Photo: Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images]

You don’t need to be told why it matters to be transparent and honest at work–that much is a given. So is the overall usefulness of expressing yourself clearly, confidently, and with as few filler words as possible. But in the effort to do that, many of us fall back on common expressions that might sound totally fine in social situations but can do some quiet damage in the workplace. One of them is “I’m sorry.” Another is “to be honest.”

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The latter turn of phrase–and versions of it, like “honestly,” “frankly,” “if I can be honest with you,” or “let me be frank”–is easy to resort to when you want to cut through the crap, come clean, or offer your unvarnished opinion. But these expressions also tend to attach themselves to–and subtly encourage–certain messages that are either better left unsaid or ought to be rephrased. Here are times when “to be honest” can make you sound less authoritative around the office.


Related: Six Words And Phrases That Make Everyone Hate Working With You


It Signals You’re About To Spill The Beans

We often use the expression “to be honest” as a tip-off that we’re sharing confidential information. Suppose your boss is speaking to a team member and says, “To be honest, we’re going to have to let Jim go next quarter.” The first three words alert the listener to the fact that sensitive intel is on its way.

Likewise, a recruiter might tell a candidate, “To be honest, there are 10 other applicants the client is considering.” Or the head of a department might say, “To be honest with you, management has started discussing the possibility of layoffs.”

There are times when you and your boss or colleagues really do need to talk about something confidentially together. But those conversations shouldn’t need to be prefaced this way. If you really want someone to keep a discussion under wraps, come right out and say so: “I’d prefer you keep this to yourself because  . . .”–and always give a reason. This way the other person understands why you’re asking them to keep quiet about the subject and consciously choose whether to agree to that.

But prefacing something you’re about to say with “to be honest” sweeps away any prospect of mutually agreeing to discuss sensitive information–because watch out, here it comes! Leaders, effective managers, and people you can actually trust around the office are more discreet than this. They aren’t gossips. They are truthful as a matter of habit, not just for certain behind-the-scenes moments when they unilaterally choose to divulge secretive intel. That aboveboard mentality is what gives them their authority, after all.

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Related: Four Times You Shouldn’t Apologize (Including When It’s Your Fault


It Precedes Criticism

Another reason not to use “to be honest” is that it’s frequently a tip-off that you’re about to attack someone. The same way you might unthinkingly use the expression to make illicit information licit, there’s a risk you’ll resort to it in order to clear the way for criticism you probably shouldn’t share. You’ve likely experienced this. When someone says “to be honest,” they often lower their voice, lean in closer, and tell it like it is.

A colleague might remark, “To be honest, Jessica kind of sucks at her job and we usually have to pick up the pieces for her.” Or a project team member may say, “Honestly, we have enough people on the project team right now–we really don’t need another person.” Or a boss might state, “Can I be frank? Your presentation to the client didn’t really work. That’s why we didn’t get the business.”

Sometimes negative feedback is useful and necessary, but this is one of the worst ways to deliver it; you first need to prepare somebody to receive constructive criticism. This way you can have a productive conversation about how you want them to improve. But beginning with “to be honest” is like a slap in the face, and what follows is likely to feel abrupt and hurtful rather than constructive.

It Can Undercut What You’ve Already Said

A third (and possibly the main) reason to avoid this expression is because it usually just diminishes the importance of whatever you’ve said already. It’s an instant cheapener.

You may toss in “to be honest” to buy time while you’re thinking, just like any other filler word or expression like, “um” or “you know.” Or maybe you believe it adds sincerity or warmth to your conversation. But there’s an unmistakable undertow to it: as soon as you hear somebody say, “to be honest,” your mind flashes back to what was just said. You sit up, take notice, and half-consciously wonder whether their preceding statements were less than honest–should you discount or ignore them?

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Maybe your manager is critiquing a slide deck you’ve put together. “I like what you’ve done to improve your presentation,” she says. “You’ve reduced the number of slides and sharpened the messaging. But to be honest, you need to bring more focus to your central point.” Right away, her “to be honest” gives more weight to the criticism that follows and reduces the power of the compliments that precede it. It saps her own words of their authority!

If she’d just left that phrase out, her comments would be positive on balance, and you’d already be thinking about how to improve that central point–not wondering whether your boss meant what she said, or even whether you can take her at her word next time.

About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders.

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