I once had a conversation with a programming consultant who’d received feedback from a client that their communication style felt too direct, unfriendly, sometimes abrupt. The consultant was surprised by the feedback since they’d specifically focused on not using unfriendly language. They had indeed noticed that the client seemed a little heated about their comments, but that didn’t seem to make any sense.
”I’ve simply told it like it is, and it can’t make you angry if it’s the truth, right?”
From the consultant’s point of view, the client company’s spaghetti code was woefully out of date and it would have been best to simply scrap the whole thing and rewrite it. They could see a very challenging future if that wasn’t done. The time spent now would pay itself back in the future. Who could get angry about that?
Why do we get angry at the truth?
1. The truth hurts and shames us
People get angry at the truth because the truth hurts. Regardless of whether the client knew that the code was spaghetti and needed refactoring or this was the first time they’d heard of it, the situation is far from ideal. When someone – especially an outsider – comes in and points at something that needs fixing, we feel shame and discomfort.
When we feel shame and discomfort, we have a tendency to get angry and attack, that is, to displace the unpleasant feeling away from us and into our surroundings. So, if we point a finger at someone else’s flaws, whether that’s a person or an organisation, usually the first response is indignation, defensiveness or even attacking. That’s how humans work.
This doesn’t mean that it would be impossible to have a constructive dialogue. Indignation passes and the feeling of shame fades. It’s easiest to get to the constructive dialogue stage if you phrase your comments in a less absolute way from the get go. Even if it’s simply true that the code is a pile of spaghetti, you can approach the topic delicately or through a question. It’s easier on the other person’s ego.
2. Suggestions get interpreted as criticism
When something could be done better or is done badly, there’s always the possibility that the listener interprets the comment as a criticism. Sometimes that’s the case, but not nearly always. We can genuinely want to improve things and situations without intending to criticise other people for the fact that the situation is currently what it is.
Depending on the recipient, people might nevertheless consider even the smallest suggestion to be a criticism and a complaint. Especially if the person in question suffers from perfectionism or the impostor syndrome, even the smallest dose of criticism might feel crushing. In these situations, the person gets offended at the truth because it reminds them that not everything is well, and things being well is ultimately what everyone strives for in general.
This doesn’t at all mean that you shouldn’t make suggestions and give feedback. We cannot, and it isn’t our job to, protect the other person from feeling hurt. Part of being a professional is being able to receive and deal with different kinds of feedback and suggestions for improvement.
However, what we can do is mind our words. It’s a totally different thing to be told, “This code is the worst spaghetti I’ve ever seen and needs to be completely rewritten” than, “I have some ideas on how this code could be easier to maintain in the future, and one option would be to completely rewrite it now.”
3. The truth is not black-and-white or it isn’t the whole picture
The third reason for getting angry at the truth is that the truth isn’t always so black-and-white. It’s always possible that the consultant doesn’t have all the information, and the missing pieces would change their opinion. Even if the code would still be spaghetti once they have all the information, the consultant might no longer think that it’s a good idea to completely rewrite it.
It’s also possible that the consultant doesn’t know everything going on in the organisation outside their own team. It might be frustrating for the client to receive definite pronouncements on a subject that they’ve already had to fruitlessly fight over in their own organisation. Or if the change has already been planned for, but is a year away.
Especially if the consultant doesn’t take a moment to first stop and ask if the topic has already been discussed, what has led to the current situation or what has prevented the refactoring of the code until now, the client can easily get the feeling that “it’s easy to just come in from the outside and dictate what we should do here.”
4. The client relationship isn’t yet strong enough for critique
When the client relationship is brand new, there’s not much trust between the client and the consultant. The initial trust comes from
- how credible and convincing the consultant or the consulting company is
- what kind of reputation the other consultants in the company have
- what sort of first impression the consultant has given.
Trust builds up slowly over time, one meeting after another. Friendliness, co-operation, confidentiality, trustworthiness, respect, expertise, caring and helping add to it. The relationship is only strong enough withstand critique when enough trust has accumulated.
We are far more willing to receive criticism and suggestions from people whom we trust, like and believe to have expertise. Especially the feeling of mutual respect and appreciation and believing we have a common goal and we stand behind the same things make receiving critique easier.
So, if the relationship is not strong enough yet, it is challenging to bring up difficulties, and doing so tends to cause more resistance. Bringing up challenges too early can easily make the consultant seem impertinent or even arrogant. However well-meaning you are, if the trust isn’t there, the client will easily suspect that the consultant is bringing up the issue to press their own advantage – not because they want to help the client.
Anger is natural but avoidable
Getting angry is a fairly natural reaction, even to be expected. It might not be logical, but it’s human nature. Nevertheless, it pays off to bring up difficulties, because that is part of the role of a skilful consultant, a responsible colleague and a good expert. If you want to avoid angry reactions, it’s a good idea to first go through this checklist:
- Is the relationship already strong enough to express critique?
- Am I familiar with the background and have I made an effort to understand the situation beyond the surface level?
- Have I phrased my comments tactfully?
You can always use a colleague to test the tactfulness of your suggestion. Other people look at our words differently from ourselves. None of these things can totally prevent someone from getting angry at the truth, but at least they make it less likely.
TL;DR The truth often angers people
- The truth hurts and shames us. A natural human reaction is to feel indignant, get defensive or even attack.
- It’s easier on the other person’s ego if you approach the matter tactfully or even by phrasing it as a question.
- The listener may interpret suggestions as criticism towards themselves. A person gets offended at the truth when things are not well despite their best efforts.
- You aren’t responsible for the other person’s feelings, but phrase your opinions carefully nevertheless.
- Perhaps your truth isn’t the whole truth.
- Take a moment to first find out if the topic has been discussed earlier or what has led to the current situation.
- A new client relationship is not yet strong enough for receiving critique. We prefer to receive critique and suggestions from people we trust, like and believe to be credible.
- Build up trust before bringing up problems.
- It nevertheless pays off to bring up difficulties.
- You can also use your colleagues to test if you’ve succeeded with the phrasing of your suggestions.