How to Tell Someone an Uncomfortable Truth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Power of Moments" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever had to tell someone an uncomfortable truth? What was their reaction? What do you think is the best way to get someone to confront a hard-to-hear truth about themselves?

Most people go about telling one another hard-to-hear truths in the wrong way—by saying the truth outright. But this approach often leads to defensiveness and breakdown of communication. If you want someone to confront an uncomfortable truth, don’t tell them directly—lead them to discover it themselves.

Here is how to force someone to confront an uncomfortable truth without telling them outright.

Confronting an Uncomfortable Truth

In their book The Power of Moments, the Heaths first explore how you can spark insight in others by setting up a moment in which they will be forced to confront an uncomfortable truth. They note three essential factors to making the moment defining:

  1. Have a clear conclusion: Know exactly what conclusion you want your audience to come to. This is often the easiest part of the process—you usually know exactly what truth needs revealing.
  2. Operate on a short time frame: Create a situation that will guide your audience to their discovery over a matter of minutes or hours, or even more immediately.
  3. Allow audience discovery: Let the audience discover the conclusion themselves, instead of telling them what to do. 

These factors result in an “aha! moment,” or what psychologist Roy Baumeister dubbed the crystallization of discontent: a sudden moment in which any vague negativity or discomfort you’re feeling suddenly crystallizes in a pattern—you discover links between seemingly unrelated issues and the core problem becomes startlingly clear. The crystallization of discontent often provides a crucial burst of motivation to make a major change, such as someone leaving her abusive spouse, cult members leaving their organization, or alcoholics deciding to start recovery.

Why These Three Factors?

These three factors are crucial to creating insight because together, they replicate the conditions of a spontaneous crystallization of discontent. In her book Radical Acceptance, author Tara Brach discusses the Alcoholics Anonymous program, which notes that an addict begins changing when they hit rock bottom, an experience that echoes the Heaths’ three factors:

1) They realize that their lives are not within their control (an instantaneous realization, or a short timeline). 

2) They understand that they must make a change to their lifestyle (a clear conclusion). 

3) They have to come to this realization on their own—addiction support organizations stress that the addict is the only person who can take on the recovery process. In other words, they can’t get help until they understand the problem and decide to treat it themselves.

(Shortform note: While the clear conclusion and short timeframe are more “logistical necessities” of creating a crystallization of discontent, the third factor—audience discovery—can be better understood as a “key action.”

Key Action: Let Your Audience Discover the Conclusion Themselves

You’ll likely be tempted to start your discussion of an issue by presenting the solutions you’ve come up with, but this is just a way to tell your audience what conclusion they’re supposed to come to. In order to guide your audience toward the conclusion without telling them what to do or what to think, you must start by discussing the problems.

As you walk them through the problems, don’t focus on sharing what you know—this is just another way of telling them what to think. Instead, guide them in such a way that they encounter the same problems you did and therefore discover the same conclusion you did.

This is crucial: If you instead approach your audience’s problem by telling them exactly what’s wrong and how it can be fixed, they’ll likely become defensive or argumentative. No one likes being told that they’re doing things wrong or how they should act, and no one changes unless they want to change. 

Why We’re So Resistant to Being Told What to Do 

Most people go about telling one another hard-to-hear truths in the wrong way—by saying the truth outright. In their book Difficult Conversations, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen explain two reasons why this approach most often leads to defensiveness and a breakdown of communication:  

In conversations around a problem, most people tend to confuse intent and impact—that is, when someone’s words hurt you (the impact), you become upset and assume that they intended to hurt you. As a result, you become angry at them and resistant to what they have to say.  Most people go into arguments with the idea that the other person is in the wrong. You approach the issue by explaining all the ways they’re contributing to the problem, in an effort to make them see why you’re right. Meanwhile, they think you’re in the wrong and will naturally push back, in an effort to make you see why they’re right. 

When you let someone discover a hard truth themselves, these blame games don’t come to pass. There’s no “other side” to fight against or blame for your hurt, which means you can approach the problem from the same side and focus on solutions rather than being right.

Once the audience sees the problem clearly enough to start thinking about solutions, you’re in a position to start explaining the solutions you’ve thought of. Unburdened by hurt or blame, and with a “homegrown” appreciation for the problem at hand, your audience is primed to listen to what you have to say.  

(Shortform note: In their book, the Heaths focus their discussion of audience discovery on its benefit of minimizing pushback. However, audience discovery also has the benefit of being especially motivating. The experience of putting together a pattern creates a pleasant, exciting rush of adrenaline, even if the discovery itself isn’t pleasant or exciting. This rush makes the discovery more engaging, therefore making the audience’s desire to act stronger. On the other hand, if you were to announce what the discovery should be, the audience doesn’t experience an exciting and motivating moment. You might think of it as the difference between finally completing a complex jigsaw puzzle yourself and simply viewing a jigsaw puzzle someone else completed.)

Example: Community-Led Total Sanitation

The Heaths provide a powerful example that shows how building a situation that gives people sudden insight into problems can lead to impressive transformations. 

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is a sanitary organization that works to build public-use latrines in rural villages across the world and teach about the dangers of open defecation practices. In one village in Bangladesh, CLTS found that people were not using their latrines, preferring to stick with the open-defecation status quo. Telling the villagers to use the latrines was useless—in response, they became defensive about their practices. 

CLTS sent a representative to the village, who asked the villagers to draw a map of the village in the dirt, marking their homes and other places of importance. He then asked them to mark all the open-defecation areas in the village with yellow chalk dust. Then, he asked them to mark the places that people would defecate in the case of a rainstorm or an emergency. The yellow chalk surrounded the houses. Lastly, he asked them to mark places where they’d found feces outside of the designated areas. At this point, the map was covered in yellow chalk and there was a palpable discomfort among the crowd. 

The representative then pulled a hair from his head, dipped it in a nearby pile of feces, and dropped it into a glass of water. He asked, “Would you drink this?” The villagers shook their heads in disgust. 

The representative asked the villagers to think of his hair like a fly’s leg, then explain that with so many open defecation areas, flies likely often landed on feces before landing on the villagers’ food. The villagers had their aha! moment and cried out in disgust as they realized what they were eating.

The CLTS method has sparked transformations in thousands of villages worldwide that are now open-defecation free. The method utilizes all three aha! moment factors:

  • Clear conclusion: CLTS wants villagers to realize that open defecation is unsanitary, makes them sick, and touches the whole community. 
  • Short time frame: The questions, visuals, and sudden moment of realization can play out over the course of an afternoon.
  • The audience comes to the realization themselves: The CLTS representative acts as a neutral guide to the truth: He sows the seeds of discomfort among the villagers, letting them visualize the magnitude of the problem with a map covered in yellow chalk. By presenting them with a feces-covered hair in water, he prompts their vague discomfort to find shape in an abrupt realization.
Insight Sparks Transformation Only for Those Who Can Use It

In this example, the Heaths attribute the success of the CLTS method to their engineered aha! moment. However, the CLTS method relies heavily on underlying circumstances as well: CLTS notes on their website that this program is most effective in places that are close-knit, small, remote, and have strong leadership. There are numerous ways that these factors may contribute to the program’s effectiveness:

Close-knit communities are likely to arrive at the same conclusions about what to do—and if they don’t, it’s easier for friends and family to persuade each other to the right conclusion than it is for strangers to persuade one another.

Small, remote villages don’t need to deal with much bureaucracy and infrastructure planning when putting in pit toilets. Strong leaders advocate for programs that are in their communities’ best interests, such as CLTS. Additionally, they make and act on decisions quickly and efficiently, and don’t experience as much pushback from their communities as weaker or untrustworthy leaders might. 

This brings up an important aspect of these aha! moments that the Heaths don’t explore: Aha! moments are meaningful and effective only if your audience can do something about the problem. The insights you engineer should align with transformations that your audience can reasonably accomplish. For example, creating a moment to make your friend realize the globally devastating effects of climate change won’t be particularly transformative or meaningful—she can’t solve a global problem alone, so the discovery is frustrating and useless. Instead, you might engineer a moment that helps her discover how many plastic water bottles she uses. 
How to Tell Someone an Uncomfortable Truth

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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