Monday, September 1, 2008

True, Kind, Necessary

When I was growing up, my parents would occasionally remind me of what I now know as the Thumper Rule (because it was one of Thumper's lines, repeated back to his mother when she chastised him for not following it, in Disney's Bambi): "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." They would also remind me that you can almost always come up with something nice to say about someone if you think about it for a while. Yet I still sometimes thought that truth alone was a sufficient criterion for making a statement.

Later in life as I became, I hope, wiser and began to realize that there was more to communication than raw truth, I came across the rule of True, Kind, Necessary, which is a more sophisticated rule similar in spirit to the Thumper Rule. If you google for true, kind, necessary you will get a lot of hits. Although this guideline has been around for a long time (as far back as Socrates and his Triple Filter test), none of the postings I happened to read described the rule in quite the way that I originally heard it or interpret it for my personal use:
When making a statement, particularly about the person to whom you are speaking, consider whether that statement is true, kind, or necessary:
  • If the statement is true, kind and necessary, you should make it. In fact, you should go out of your way to make it.
  • If true and kind but unnecessary, or true and necessary but unkind, you may make the statement unsolicited, and should make the statement in response to a direct question if you do not have an answer that satisfies all three.
  • If true but neither kind nor necessary, you should not make the statement unsolicited, but may make the statement in answer to a direct question. However, there are other options that may be better, including demurring, responding without answering the question, or simply remaining silent.
  • If none, the statement should never be made.
The guideline as I originally heard it was actually a bit different than what I have listed above:
If a statement satisfies at least two out of three of true, kind and necessary, then it may be made.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a bit of a stickler for truth, so I'm not keen on the idea of making a statement that is kind, necessary and not true. But there are people who do not share my view, and for those people there is some logic in this position. Using that same logic, it would be acceptable to give an answer that satisfies any one of the three in response to a direct question. Perhaps the canonical example would be answering "no" to the question "Does this make me look fat?" when that's not your actual opinion. If you believe that "little white lies" are acceptable, this might be the guideline that helps distinguish between those "white lies" and lies of other colors.

Or perhaps you should say nothing, if your words would not improve the silence.


Chris Bouzek said...

I think Dale Carnegie would have agreed with you.

Ean0673 said...

Being a stickler for the truth is fine; but what is the truth? Truth has often been used to mislead because you can speak it without including specific pieces of the 'big picture'. I didn't want to think up an example so Googled one:

Someone invites you to a meeting and you do not want to go.

Truth: I don't want to meet with you.
Lie: My car broke down so I can't make it then.
Misleading truth: I already have a meeting (in 10 minutes which will be done in 5 and leave me plenty of time to make yours; but, I really don't want to attend yours and hope this will throw you off).

So, I'm a stickler for honesty. Honesty is being both truthful AND forthcoming. It never misleads. So, maybe I'm arguing semantics, but my three gates would be:

Is it true and honest?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?

There's also sometimes a fourth gate that gets a little metaphysical but can be valid:

Does it improve upon the silence?

If what you're saying is true, necessary, and kind but would still contribute nothing positive to the conversation then maybe you're talking about the wrong thing?