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Walking The Tightrope Between Honesty and Harm: A Theory of Honest Engagement In Difficult Conversations Across People, Context, and Time
From delivering negative feedback and confronting discrimination in the workplace to discussing death and illness with children and setting boundaries with loved ones, difficult conversations are a necessary and challenging part of social life. In this work, we define difficult conversations as one type of necessary evil: any conversation in which a communicator expects honesty to cause harm to the audience in the service of some perceived greater good or purpose. We introduce the Honesty-Harm Conflict (HHC) model of difficult conversations to explain how the perceived costs and benefits of difficult conversations influence honest engagement across people, context, and time. The HHC model proposes that difficult conversations are experienced as a tradeoff between causing immediate harm and fostering long-term learning and growth in others. Furthermore, communicators expect to experience personal costs during difficult conversations as a function of the immediate social harm they anticipate inflicting on others. As a result, honest engagement in difficult conversations requires overcoming both the interpersonal challenges associated with harm aversion and the self-regulatory challenges associated with prioritizing abstract, long-term benefits over concrete, short-term costs. The HHC model explains when and why these challenges loom larger and points to promising new interventions to overcome them. In doing so, this work deepens our understanding of honesty, self-regulation, and everyday harm, and provides practical guidance on managing, mentoring, and promoting others’ growth.