The Key Difference Between Partial Truths and Whole Lies

by Alli Polin on March 31, 2015

truth takes courage

This weekend we had beautiful weather and my son was eager to go outside and kick his soccer ball around.  Instead of going to the park, he ventured onto our tiny patch of green in the back of our house and within a few minutes had kicked the ball over the neighbor’s fence. What happened next was eye opening. 

My son knocked on the neighbor’s door to get back his ball, but they weren’t home.  Finally, about an hour later, they pulled into their driveway, and he zipped to their door to ask for his ball.  

He was told:

“I threw it back over the fence.”

Simple!  Great!  Thank you! 

My son ran into our yard and that’s when I heard his wail.  He walked inside to show me his deflated ball with hundreds of tooth marks. It was clearly not salvageable.  Their dog had chowed on his ball to the point where it resembled a new fangled frisbee more than a soccer ball.  

It wasn’t only the fact that his ball was now trash that was upsetting, but also the reply to the request to get back his ball.  Yes, it was now back in our yard, but it was not exactly a ball anymore. Did not sit well with me. 

So, did the neighbor lie when he said he threw it back into our yard?  No, he did chuck it over the fence.  Did he tell the whole truth?  I’m going with no on that too.  Partial truths and whole lies may look similar, but they’re not. 

What do you think?  Partial Truths, Whole Lies, or Something Else?

Scenario #1: Yesterday you gave your boss a key document to review.

You: Did you get a chance to review my document?

Boss: I did.  Good work.  I just left it on your chair.  

When you get back to your desk, you discover a document with so many red marks that you have to turn it sideways to read all of the comments and suggested changes.  By the time you get done with revisions, it will not remotely resemble your initial draft. 

Scenario #2: You are unable to attend a client meeting with your team.  

You: How did the meeting go?

Colleague: Great. They’re happy. 

Turns out when they client expressed some concerns about your portion of the project, your colleague threw you under the bus.  They commiserated with the client on your oh-so-shortsighted approach and vowed to keep an eye on you. That made the client happy. 

Scenario #3: You asked your friend to go to a concert on Saturday night.

You: Wow! Justin Bieber concert this Saturday! We’ve got to get tickets!

Friend: I can’t. My grandmother’s in town.  I’m totally bummed. 

Your friend’s grandmother is in town but that didn’t stop her from going to see Bieber do his thing with three of your other friends.  They didn’t include you in the original plans.  

Scenario #4: You demand that your child cleans their room. 

You: Clean your room, or you lose your iPad for three weeks! Do it!

Child: All done! Look – not a thing’s on the floor. 

Your child is praying you don’t open their closet or lift their beanbag where  months worth of stinky socks, toys and would-be trash are hiding.  At least it’s true, the floor is finally clear and there is a path from the door to the bed. 

Scenario #5: There are tons of rumors about layoffs. You ask for the truth.

You: I hear that layoffs are coming.  Can you tell me the scoop?

Boss: Where did you hear that? I’d love to know. 

Deflecting and redirecting the conversation your boss hopes that you don’t realize that they did not give you a straight answer. You’re not shocked when two weeks later half of your team gets their pink slips. You are disappointed in your boss and their lack of transparency. They had to know it was coming.

What’s the key difference between partial truths and a whole lies?

Intention

Who does your response most serve?  You?  

In every scenario above, it was easier to tell a partial truth than a painful truth.  Self-protection and avoidance of tough conversations are common but are also not leadership. There are times when leaders have to step into what’s uncomfortable and leave easy behind. 

Partial truths (aka lies) are told as a CYA.  (unless of course it’s defending the existence of Santa Claus) 

[Tweet “The truth doesn’t need spin, it needs compassion and courage.”]

What if the neighbor had responded:

“I’m sorry. Our dog got to your ball. I had to throw it away.”

What if your boss said:

“Don’t be alarmed by all of the red marks. We can discuss it. They’re suggestions and ideas in addition to a few changes.”

What if your colleague said:

“I know that (your name here) is working hard on a solution.  I’ll have them reach out to you. They regret that they could not be here.”

What if your friend said:

“I didn’t know that you wanted to go. I already have tickets. I wish I had asked you.”

What if your child said:

I cleaned up my desk and picked up my dirty clothes. I didn’t realize it would take so much effort to get organized. I’ll do more tomorrow too.

What if your boss said:

“I’m not able to disclose the details because I’m still getting information about the changes. I don’t want to give you bad information.”

[Tweet “In the absence of facts, we make up stories and most of them are not fairytales with happy endings”]

As for my son, we bought him a new ball.  He loves it and has learned that there are consequences you can’t always predict. Also, he learned why it’s better to tell an uncomfortable truth than a partial one. 

BREAK THE FRAME ACTION:

Step into your discomfort.

Lead with integrity to build trust.

Be a role model for respect, courage and compassion.

You always have a choice… tell the truth.

How will you stop telling partial truths in favor of speaking the whole truth? Even when it’s hard…

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Feeley March 31, 2015 at 6:34 am

I love this post Ali! The entire subject instantly attracted me as a ‘must read’. You are so right when you say — we always have a choice to tell the truth…not to pad it or alter it. Thanks for your examples and the direct way you write about truth.

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Alli Polin March 31, 2015 at 6:53 am

Michael,

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment too. The truth, like so many other things, is a choice… even when it’s easier to wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation.

Greatly appreciate your insights too! Love reading what you frequently publish on LinkedIn! Always resonates.

~ Alli

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Chery Gegelman March 31, 2015 at 7:01 am

I love, love, love this post Alli!

Great stories – beautiful lessons.

Your post reminds me of my mother’s pickle story. A FAMOUS side splitting story in our family for decades that is packed with the same powerful lesson about 1/2 truths… Mom disposed of jars of pickles by flushing them, and when they clogged the toilet up how she didn’t tell the whole story to my dad… Who ended up looking pretty foolish in front of the property owner we he emerged from the bathroom with a bucket of pickles!

This quote from Susan Mazza sums it up… “Your integrity will define you… and it will define your leadership.”

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Alli Polin March 31, 2015 at 7:10 am

I love your pickle story, Chery! Fits perfectly in this bunch. Awesome. Thanks for sharing it here.

Also, Susan’s quote is perfect. Right on.

Thank you!!

~ Alli

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Marco March 31, 2015 at 7:47 am

I liked to read the examples.

And today it happened again: lies, lies

One example. I went to the bank. The person of the bank wrote wrongly my mine. I asked her to correct (it was missing a “b” in my long surname) but she said that it is fine. What is the benefit of having wrong information in the system?

Similar thing happens when somebody wants to obtain certain information and has to sign in to obtain it. Of course that the person clicks it to accept but of course the person did not read and even less understood it and for sure did not agree with it.

There are so many lies inside the system that it is impossible to not stop participating in such lies. One great example is the voting (whatever voting), the voter has asymmetric information and interests and still the result has to be accepted as symmetric… And of course the 25th of December that is lie happily celebrated…

Ideas to solve this ☺ ??

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 8:14 am

Marco,

Thanks for reading and commenting! Sometimes it’s important to separate our perceptions from the truth as well. You bring up a great point that information… facts… influences your sense of truth and what’s right too.

I don’t think we can solve some of the examples you share because that would mean changing others. The only person we have control over is ourselves. That’s when shifting your perspective can create powerful changes too.

Thanks again!

~ Alli

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Blair March 31, 2015 at 7:48 am

This post is so powerful, Alli. Not only did you really register the impact of half-truths in certain situations, but you also did such an inspiring job of showing us what the full truth looks like when delivered with courage and compassion.
In his most recent comedy special, Louis CK does a fabulous bit about why children lie — whether it’s about cleaning their room as you discuss here or eating all the chocolate. He gives a great visual about how in the face of the towering angry adult, the child realizes that lying is going to be much, much easier, and then of course, we tell them not to do the “One thing that’s going to save their ass.” Your post really emphasizes how even though we are all grown up, that little child still cowers in the face of confrontation.

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 4:26 am

Blair –

Your comment really sums up what’s at the heart of so many partial truths! Our cowering inner child that would rather say something to get off the hook than go for the whole truth.

Thank you! I’ve got to check out that comedy special!

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Jon Mertz March 31, 2015 at 8:53 am

Great scenarios, Alli! They are very real and show the power of radical transparency. Why not tell the a well-rounded truth rather than a deflated one? By doing this, we gain more engagement as well as honesty and a better organizational culture. Wonderful post (again!). Jon

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 4:29 am

Radical transparency. Sounds intimidating but creates a culture that thrives on trust… where risk and innovation can flourish!

Thanks for that thought! Playing with it in my mind now…

~ Alli

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Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ March 31, 2015 at 9:05 am

Hi Alli,
Your post hits it straight to the top with this one sentence: The truth doesn’t need spin, it needs compassion and courage.

Compassion and courage. Bravo Alli. The truth is not an excuse to be brutally blunt nor is compassion a justification to avoid the truth.

Great post!

Warmest regards,
Kate

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 4:38 am

Love how you put it, Kate! Truth does not require a disregard for people’s feelings or experience. It’s when we view another as equally human that we’re on the right track. We all make mistakes, errors in judgement, it’s time to own them.

Thanks for your addition to this conversation! Well said!

~ Alli

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Terri Klass March 31, 2015 at 10:24 am

Such a truthful post, Alli! I just love how you tackled the importance of being truthful in both our professional and personal lives. It takes guts to provide full disclosure of certain situations and a thick skin to handle the repercussions.

This reminds me of Big Bird sharing the truth about making mistakes. BB tries to tell us that “everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you?” I love that message of just admitting our missteps because we all are imperfect.

Thanks Alli for another great post!

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 4:40 am

It does take guts! (especially when we know we won’t look good).

I totally remember that song from Big Bird! It’s a lesson from childhood that we should carry with us. Humming now 🙂

~ Alli

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Karin Hurt March 31, 2015 at 10:25 am

So how do we make sure your neighbor reads this post? I get the impression, he’s not a follower 😉 Too bad. Sounds like he could use it…

We just had this discussion in my MBA class. I was amazed at how many students through partial throughs were a pragmatic way to avoid conflict. Telling the truth may be harder in the short-term, but goes miles in building truly trusting relationships.

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 4:47 am

Ha! My husband asked me if anyone in their family subscribes to the blog.

Many leaders that I’ve worked with are like magicians, wriggling in and out of sticky political situations with half-truths and carefully chosen omissions. However, in most cases, they trip up at some point and by then, trust is irreparable.

Thanks for sharing, Karin!

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Brian Smith March 31, 2015 at 11:41 am

Great post. I must admit I do tell little white lies. As a manager or business owner you can’t tell the whole truth sometimes. (pending layoffs – selling the business, upcoming advertising campaigns that you don’t want your competitors to know, etc.). If a women asks me if they look good in a dress – or an outfit of a particular colour – what’s a guy suppose to do? The answer could be life threatening 🙂

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 4:50 am

I hear you! The question I’m mulling is if it’s self-protection because you need to step into an uncomfortable truth or… something else.

I also tell my husband I want the truth on my outfit and now when he says he likes it (and I don’t) I push him. Really? Really? Hard to win 😉

Thanks so much, Brian!

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LaRae Quy March 31, 2015 at 2:50 pm

This is one my favorite posts, Alli!

You hit the nail on the head with partial truths vs whole lies. It’s the sin of ommission that can really get us into trouble. Anyone who is a negotiator, mediator, or in a relationship of ANY kind knows how hard it can be to always tell the whole truth.

And don’t even get me started on how to respond as to whether I like my priest’s sermons…

My rule of thumb is this: telling the whole truth all the time can really hurt feelings. So, if it isn’t just about me worried about how I’ll come across, I will tell the truth. But, if I think it will wound another person, I will tell a half-truth.

Call me a coward, but I’m not sure compassion always lies on the side of truth….

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 8:06 am

That’s a great rule of thumb, LaRae! It’s one that I often use as well.

Compassion does not always align with truth but when you are going to say something that could be tough to swallow, without it, it can easily come across as cruel or arrogant.

Truth seems black and white but can be a tough line to walk! Grateful for your insights here.

~ Alli

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John Bennett March 31, 2015 at 8:42 pm

The rules of rounding up are different for fractions of lies: any fraction > 0.0 gets rounded up to 1.0 –> full lie, any truth irrelevant!!! Choosing to tell a “half truth” is a double bad: the lie itself and the lack of accepting responsibility for (gently, with empathy) being honest.

I’ve always believed that if a sense of empathy doesn’t lead to my being honest, then the practicality should: IF you say anything not true, you have so much more to remember –> what was said, who it was said to, when it was said, HO heard it when it was said, … To me, much easier to stick with what you believe is the truth

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 8:09 am

I’m with you on that! Growing up my mother used to let me get caught in my web of lies. She would ask me for details about where I was and what I was doing… and then casually mention that she called my friend’s house and knew I wasn’t there. Just keeping track of all of my details was hard enough! My fault for not calling my friend and asking her to become a part of my web and lie for me…. oh. but that would be wrong, right?

Sticking with the truth is a great way to go.

Thanks, John!

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John Thurlbeck April 1, 2015 at 4:23 am

Hi Alli

Outstanding! The sin of omission, the white lie and all that other bollocks that stops people feeling their fear, taking their courage in their hands, and owning their thoughts and their actions.

Compassion and integrity – that’s what we need more of in our leaders! Hooray for Alli Pollin! You are just the business!

Have a brilliant week ahead!

Kind regards

John

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Alli Polin April 1, 2015 at 8:18 am

Owning thoughts and actions – big yes! Taking responsibility for when our words omit, twist or express the truth. I once worked with a mentor who often spoke about what it meant to lead with love… When you love someone, you reconsider what you say. Almost more importantly, if it doesn’t change your words, it changes your way of being… which ultimately changes everything.

Hope you have an AMAZING week ahead too! So grateful for your connection!

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Brenda Lee April 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

Alli this post is fabulous!

I don’t know why people have such a hard time telling the truth. Are they simply cowards or do they enjoy lying? I am a firm believer in telling the truth, even if it’s going to hurt someone. I think that “someone” will appreciate it in the end.

Thanks for this article! Passing it along!

B

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Alli Polin April 2, 2015 at 7:08 am

I’m with you. Lies catch up with you, but the truth is simply that… the truth. I learned that any behavior or feedback, hard or soft, can be done with a heart at peace or a heart at war. When we’re at peace and have their best interest in mind, that’s how it will be received too.

Thanks so much for your comment, B!!

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