Sunday, October 29, 2023

How honest should you be when someone asks for help?

There are times when telling the whole truth is simply cruel, as when a doctor can choose whether to tell a dying patient in clinical detail how his health will decay, I wrote 25 years ago in a column about how high-profile figures had been caught in a lie. “There’s great room for discretion, for knowing when not to speak,” Sissela Bok, the author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1989) told me back then.

But how honest should you be when someone asks you for their opinion on something on which they’ve been working hard and about which they are clearly quite proud? If a friend or colleague has, for example, been working on a cover letter for a job, a letter to the editor of a publication, a grant proposal, an opinion column, a book, or other similar efforts and he, she or they asks you for your feedback, how honest should you be?

Presumably, if the person is asking you for feedback they want your feedback so they can make whatever they are working on as strong and clear as it can possibly be. There are times, however, where some people asking for feedback simply want confirmation of the brilliance of their existing effort. In the latter case, the result of offering constructive criticism may result in a bit of a rift between the asker and the respondent.

I get asked regularly to review work for people. When it’s work done by a student for class, the expectation is that they will receive as many constructive comments as I can muster and I try to deliver. But often it’s a friend or colleague. I have no way of knowing at the outset if they are simply looking for confirmation of their brilliant effort or if they truly want comments that I believe might make what they’ve done stronger. (A hint of the latter is often when the request to me is prefaced by a comment like: “All of my friends love this. What do you think?”

What’s the right thing to do in such situations?

For those asking for feedback: If you really don’t want feedback and might resent any feedback you receive, the right thing is not to bother asking. It would be better if you truly thought that feedback might improve what you’ve done, recognizing that you don’t have to take all or any of the suggestions someone offers. But if you are incapable of accepting feedback and really only want a sign off on your existing brilliance, don’t waste the other person’s time.

For those giving feedback: The right thing is to be honest, but to be clear and specific in your comments. Stay focused on the work itself and how it might be improved rather than judging the person because he doesn’t know how to use a reflexive pronoun correctly. Whatever the project is, it’s good to remember that it’s the other person’s work, not yours. In giving feedback, your role is to try to assist them in making their work as strong and clear as it can be.

For readers of my column: I continue to appreciate the feedback some of you regularly send, often about how I might do better. I will continue to try.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


1 comment:

Phil Clutts said...

Another good column, Jeffrey. I think diplomacy is key in those situations. The reader should start by finding and commenting on at least one positive thing to say about the piece or at least its objectives. Then, if there are grammar or substantive matters that the reader thinks should be addressed, he/she should go on to say “However, you might want to consider xxx before you submit it” and give the reason why (in their opinion).