Woman hands on red dressWhat do you say when your partner asks “does my bum look big in this”? Do you think, well, actually, yes, it does make your butt look enormous and then say “That’s the perfect colour for you darling.” Or do you risk tears and tantrums by saying, “Sorry dear, but it makes you look twice as fat as you really are – and you are already several pounds heavier than you ought to be.” Whoops….!

When we are asked questions we take a view as to whether or not we should give an honest answer. Sometimes, we reckon an honest answer is not the best thing, so we give a polite, non-committal answer.  The problem, according to new research from the University of Toulouse in France, is that being polite actually leads to even more misunderstandings. And the situation is worse than we think it is. We tend to give polite answers when the stakes are high, when we are likely to have some kind of problem if we tell the truth. However, the research shows that when the stakes are highest, the person asking the question is even more likely to be confused by any answer. In other words, when we are asked potentially problematic questions our answers make it even more likely that we actually compound the problem.

Of course, you may not often be asked the perennial “big bum” question. More often you’ll be asked by friends and work colleagues to comment on their new website, their blog or the way they have redesigned their Facebook page. And what do you say? “Oh I love the colours”, or “I think the template you have chosen is perfect for you” or perhaps “It’s fantastic, well done”. But all the time you are thinking that the navigation is pants, that the layout is confusing and that the headlines are just boring, boring, boring. But do you tell your friend that the website they have slaved over for weeks on end is terrible? Do you heck. You simply politely answer at a tangent to the real question. That then confuses your friend and they have no idea as to what you are talking about, potentially making them produce an even worse website.

So, what can you do about it? The answer is simple: tell the truth. If you think the website is dreadful, say so. If you think the navigation is about as clear as mud, say so. To do anything else would actually be more negative for your friend because you would be allowing them to continue to produce a dreary, poor website. You may have heard the saying that you “have to be cruel to be kind”. And when you are saying negative things it does sound to YOU as though you are being cruel. But as this research shows us, you are not being cruel – indeed the clarity of your message makes the recipient grateful, not feel as though they are being treated unkindly in any way.

If your friends ask you to comment on their website – tell them the truth. It will not hurt – it will help.

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