Truthfulness

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Truthfulness is an important concept in Why This Way, especially as it pertains to communication. Our rules of communication are intended in part to promote greater truthfulness in dialogue. The first positive principle in the rules is to use language accurately and honestly, stating only truths.

Truthfulness also applies to thinking, and is closely related to clear thinking. Most or all of the examples below of truthfulness in communication can also apply in a similar form to a person's own thoughts and reasoning; communication is often just an outward expression of thought.

Contents

Subjectivity and truthfulness

One of the ways in which the rules of communication help promote greater truthfulness in dialogue is through identifying subjectivity of beliefs. It is common that people believe and state or write things that are incorrect or untrue, either fully or partially. If people state these things as fact, then the statement the person made will itself be untrue; but a person stating beliefs as an I statement will be more true, so long as the person is honest.

For example, suppose a person is birdwatching in the fall, and sees a pine warbler, but mistakenly identifies it as a blackpoll warbler. If they say: "It's a blackpoll warbler!", stating their identification as fact, their statement will be untrue in the case that the bird is actually a pine warbler. However, if they say: "I think it's a blackpoll warbler!" their statement will be true if they genuinely believe the bird to be a blackpoll warbler, regardless of what the bird actually is.

The inclusion of "I think..." not only makes the statement more truthful, but can communicate or correspond to a certain degree of self-awareness of the subjectivity of belief, as well as the level of uncertainty. For example, a person might say: "I think that's a blackpoll warbler." or "I feel certain that's a blackpoll warbler.", which communicate different levels of confidence. Even if the person is wrong in their bird ID, the last statement will still be truthful if it accurately communicates the level of certainty that the person feels.

Speaking from experience

Speaking from experience can be a good way to ensure truthfulness. This point can be seen to encompass other key points in our rules of communication, such as our prohibition against making statements about another person's thoughts, intentions, or motivations.

Other people's thoughts, intentions, or motivations

No one ever directly observes any other person's thoughts, intentions, or motivations other than their own. In some cases, people can guess or infer what is going on in someone else's head by observing a person's actions, but such inference is limited and error-prone. A definite statement about another person's thoughts, intentions, and motivations is highly likely to be incorrect. One of the reasons for this is delineated in our starting points, which is that people may have beliefs, thoughts, feelings, circumstances, and past experiences that we are not aware of and do not completely understand. The context for someone else's thoughts can be very different from the context in our own lives or our own mind, causing our analysis to land very far from reality even when our reasoning seems sound.

In Why This Way, our rules of communication specify that we cannot make a statement about what is going on inside another person's head. Instead, we must focus on the outward manifestations--the person's words and actions. This keeps us focused on the more direct observation, and forces us to identify our own lines of reasoning when analyzing the person's words and actions.

For example, it is common to attempt to infer other people's thoughts by mentally putting ourselves in others' shoes. In this case, we could say: "If I were in that situation, I would probably be thinking..." This statement is much more truthful than a statement like "She must have been thinking..."

Identifying sources of information

It is a common occurrence for people to pass on basic factual information, stating it as fact, like "X is true." Such statements can be problematic because they don't identify the source or basis of the information. People don't always directly experience things that they come to know or believe--but they do always directly experience some event which leads them to believe, like hearing something from another person, or reading it somewhere. Another way that communication can become more truthful is for people to identify the source of any piece of information that is potentially uncertain or disputed. For example, in writing, a person may say: "According to such-and-such author..." rather than just stating a fact directly.

The source does not need to be explicitly identified in order to reap many of the benefits of this way of communicating. For example, in a discussion, someone might say: "I recall reading somewhere that..." or in another case a person may say: "I have a vague recollection that..." to precede something they say. In these cases, so long as they are being honest, these communications are truthful. The fact presented may be incorrect, but even if the fact is untrue, the statement is true if it captures the source or basis for the person's belief. The person's presentation of the source as being based on a vague memory also communicates a lower degree of certainty than if a person is actually able to produce an accurate citation.

Taking it even farther, the source of a piece of information can sometimes be a vague hunch or feeling. For example, "I have a strong intuition that..." or "I have a slightly weird feeling about that line of reasoning." In Why This Way we see feelings as an important guide, sometimes functioning as a red flag that can draw attention to potential problems long before a person is able to consciously articulate their concerns.

One of the effects that we have observed in discussions in Why This Way is that participants in our group have expressed that, as they work with the rules of communication more, they develop a greater ability to discern truth in the moment, in large part by learning to distinguish between hunches and intuitions, viewpoints advocated by specific people, and universally agreed-upon facts.

Nuance and complexity

Life and the universe can be very complex. It is often useful or even necessary to simplify things when talking about them, for practical reasons. But when a statement oversimplifies things, it can be less truthful than a statement that communicates greater nuance and complexity. Because the world is complex, more nuanced statements can capture a greater amount of truth about the underlying situation they describe.

Some examples of types of nuance and complexity that come up frequently in our discussions include:

  • Level of certainty of belief - It is often an oversimplification to say that a person believes or does not believe a certain statement; people can be uncertain about their beliefs, and their beliefs or the degree of certainty in a given belief can change over time. People can also feel more or less certain about something in different situations.
  • Cause and effect - Cause and effect is rarely straightforward; many events are influenced by many different factors, and there can be different ways of understanding cause and effect. It is often more truthful to talk about one event influencing another, rather than causing it in a simple way.
  • People can be very complex - Each of us only sees a relatively small piece of the total life and experience of other human beings, even people we are close to. In order for us to remain truthful in thinking and talking about other people, we must acknowledge the limits of our understanding of other people's experiences.

A common example of a complexity that is often glossed over in dialogue is cause-and-effect as it pertains to people's feelings. People will commonly say: "He hurt my feelings." or talk about "making" a person feel a certain way. This statement oversimplifies the cause and effect, glossing over the way in which a person's thoughts and beliefs affect how they feel; feelings are generated by the brain and body of the person feeling them, and are only indirectly affected by other people. A statement: "I felt bad after what he did." would be more truthful than the "He hurt my feelings", as it refrains from the causal analysis and leaves room for greater complexity in cause-and-effect.

Acknowledgment of complexity can be empowering, as it can draw attention to possible points of action. For example, if a person says or thinks "There's nothing I can do to help this situation." this can lead to inaction or abandoning of a goal. If instead, the person says: "I don't know what I can do to help this situation." the person might be more open to creatively thinking up a solution, or finding help from others. What is often even more truthful, however, is the statement: "I feel like there is little I can do to help this situation." both because there may be solutions the person hasn't thought of, and because people can often change how they respond to or cope with a situation, and such a change can often have profound effects.

Acknowledging the complexity of people and their decisions can be important for respecting them. When a person makes a decision that we dislike and do not understand, acknowledging that they may have reasons behind their actions that we do not understand can help us to be more empathetic and compassionate towards the person. It can also motivate us to listen to people to understand them more, rather than assuming we understand them.