Difficult Conversations: Dealing with the tension between honesty and benevolence

We all have had to have difficult conversations at some point, like conversations where we say no to a request, give negative feedback, or communicate a negative decision or assessment. In these kinds of bad news conversations, people often experience a tension between two moral motivations, namely to be honest and to be benevolent. Emma Levine, Annabelle Roberts, and Taya Cohen explain, in a new paper, that people often make ineffective choices in how to deal with that tension, and they provide practical tips on how to better approach situations like this.

The tension between honesty and benevolence

Levine et al. explain that, in conversations in which we have to give a negative message, we can experience a moral dilemma. On the one hand we like to be honest and on the other hand we also like to be benevolent or friendly, but we experience a tension between those two goals. We fear that being honest will hurt the other person's feelings and make the conversation uncomfortable.

In such situations we look for ways to deal with the perceived tension between the motivations for honesty and benevolent. The figure below from Levine et al.'s paper shows different ways in how we may do that.

Avoiding the dilemma

The easiest yet least effective strategy. If we don't see how to deal with the tension between honesty and benevolence, we may be tempted not to initiate the conversation at all or even actively avoid them. We spare ourselves the unpleasant experience of the conversation, but we prevent the other person from having possibly important information and therefore also do not serve the relationship with the other person.

Trade-off strategies

Another way to resolve the tension is to make a choice between honesty and benevolence. This occurs in the following ways:

  1. Prioritizing honesty: the strategy of saying it like it is without any concern for possible negative feelings or an uncomfortable situation in the conversation. This strategy often doesn't work because it hurts the other person's feelings, damages the relationship, and makes the conversation uncomfortable.
  2. Prioritizing benevolence: the strategy to talk in a friendly and encouraging way about the subject while leaving out painful information. Although you try to come across as nice with this strategy, your conversation partner often does not experience it that way, for example because of the impression that you are not being honest, that you are hiding something.
  3. Looking for a middle way: the strategy where you are a bit fair and a bit benevolent while also sacrificing both of them to some extent. This causes your communication to be at least somewhat misleading.

Integrative strategy: maximizing fairness and benevolence

With the integrative strategy you try to do maximum justice to both your wish to be honest as your wish to be benevolent. This can be achieved by formulating as honestly as possible while also being maximally benevolent. Your benevolence may be expressed by clearly stating your good intentions and by offering the other person a perspective and tools to deal with the negative message.

Short term versus long term

According to Levine et al., we often get a few things wrong. Firstly, in our choice of a conversation strategy we are often focused too much on the short term. We let ourselves be guided more by the thought that our conversation may soon become uncomfortable than by the thought that our conversation may have benefits in the longer term, including for the other person. The uncomfortable conversation seems highly probable, nearby and likely to affect us personally. The potential benefits in the longer term are further away, more uncertain and we may not even experience them personally at all (because the person, for example, may work elsewhere).

Besides overestimating the short term, we often overestimate the dilemmatic nature of honesty and benevolence. According to the authors, they often can be combined well and when we do that we not only serve the long-term interests, but it is also the case that the conversation usually does not have to be that awkward at all.


The recommendations in this article can be helpful for situations in which we have to deliver bad news. And sometimes we do indeed have to deliver bad news, for example if we turn down an applicant for a job.

But before you think about how to deliver bad news, it is wise to consider the delivery of bad news is really appropriate. It is quite possible that it is not. Here are to references to help you with that: 

  1. Here you can read about whether and how feedback is sensible and appropriate. 
  2. Here you can read about alternative ways of responding to problems (without making concessions in honesty and benevolence).