The tension between honesty and harm in conversations

Difficult conversations play a central role in personal development, conflict resolution, and social progress. These conversations can range from parents discussing sensitive topics like death and racism to professionals needing to convey uncomfortable truths. A recent publication by Emma Levine, a University of Chicago honesty researcher, which she co-authored with several colleagues, sheds new light on the complex dynamics of awkward conversations.

Honesty in Difficult Conversations

The authors define difficult conversations as those in which the sender believes honesty can harm the recipient or the relationship but ultimately benefits a greater good. But what does it actually mean to be honest? According to the researchers, honesty consists of three components:

  1. The search for the truth (establishing the truth")
  2. Transferring that information (sharing the truth")
  3. Communicating that information in a way that promotes real understanding with the recipient ("expressing the truth").

This means that sincere honesty goes beyond mere avoidance of cheating. Someone may not be being completely honest if they avoid an important conversation, use misleading language, or omit relevant information.

The Fairness-Harm Conflict Model

Central to the article is the "Honesty-Harm Conflict" (HHC) model. This model explores the complex trade-off between causing immediate harm and promoting long-term growth and understanding. It examines the ethics of deception in relation to the prevention of unnecessary harm. The main insight of the study is in the area of necessary harm", where honesty brings immediate discomfort but promises long-term benefits. These challenges of difficult conversations revolve around the tension between immediate harm, the future benefits of honesty, and the intertwined personal and relationship consequences.

The Want-Should Conflict

In difficult conversations, people often experience a "want-should" dilemma. Short-term wishes collide with long-term goals. Humans may choose immediate gratification (or, in this case, avoid immediate discomfort) at the expense of delayed rewards. Two central conflicts emerge:

  1. Short-term vs. Long-Term Consequences: Difficult conversations often come with immediate harm, such as discomfort or hurt feelings, but can yield long-term benefits, such as learning and growth.
  2. Concrete vs. Abstract Consequences: While costs are concrete, immediate, and easy to visualize, benefits, such as personal growth, are abstract and harder to define.

Propositions of the Fair Damage Conflict (HHC) Model

The authors formulate the following propositions about the model:

  1. Broadcasters expect to experience personal costs when having difficult conversations, to the extent that they expect the conversations to cause social harm.
  2. Broadcasters experience difficult conversations as "want/should" dilemmas.
  3. Broadcasters pay more attention to direct damage than to instrumental value when spontaneously establishing (3a), sharing (3b), and expressing (3c) the truth in difficult conversations.
  4. Broadcasters are more likely to have difficult conversations in the future than in the present.
  5. Broadcasters are more likely to have difficult conversations when they think abstractly rather than concretely.
  6. Transmitters are more likely to communicate honestly when they communicate in text than when they communicate by voice.
  7. Transmitters are more likely to communicate honestly with targets they feel distant from.
  8. Channels that are less sensitive to social harm are more inclined to communicate honestly.
  9. Conditional on transmitters engaging in difficult conversations and communicating honestly, targets will benefit less when conversations are conducted via text rather than voice, by targets that are far away, and by transmitters that are less sensitive to social harm.

Visualization of the Fairness-Harm Conflict Model

The model below summarizes the model described above:

Promoting Honesty in Difficult Conversations

The study by Levine and her colleagues offers a range of approaches that can help people balance these often conflicting needs:

  • Psychological Distance and Abstract Thinking: One way to help people be more honest in difficult conversations is to encourage them to view the conversation from a broader, more abstract perspective. This is called "psychological distance". Instead of focusing on the immediate consequences or the listener's potential negative reactions, one can try to see the bigger picture. This helps in recognizing the long-term benefits of honesty. For example, thinking about the possibility that an honest conversation can lead to a deeper, more meaningful long-term relationship can motivate one to see through the momentary discomforts.
  • Timing: When you're going to have a difficult conversation, the moment you do it can affect how it's received. It can sometimes be better to delay the conversation until a time when both parties are calm and willing to listen. This also gives time to think about the subject and find a way to present it in a careful and empathetic way.
  • Abstraction: For example, putting yourself in the other person's shoes or looking at the problem from a third-person perspective can help you find a more balanced and honest way to get your message across.
  • Mode of Communication: The way we communicate and the nature of our relationship with the listener also play an important role in how honesty is promoted. For example, direct communication such as face-to-face conversations can lead to greater empathy and understanding, while indirect methods such as texting may leave more room for misinterpretation.
  • Nature of the relationship: At the same time, the nature of the relationship is important. It can be easier to be honest with a stranger than with a loved one because of the fear of damaging the relationship.


Difficult conversations are essential for both personal growth and building strong relationships. Levine and her team present the Honesty-Harm Conflict (HHC) model as an innovative approach that offers insights into why we often avoid truthfulness that could cause social harm. While fairness promotes understanding and growth, broadcasters tend to prioritize the immediate need to prevent harm over long-term benefits.

This research opens new perspectives on managing challenging conversations in various situations, focusing on the balance between fairness and potential harm.