Brutal Honesty Delivered Kindly

In yesterday’s post Mentors 4/18: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard, Joah Spearman left a very powerful comment about empathy.

“The older I get the more I realize that truth is something that is best coupled with empathy. Ultimately, you have to seek to understand before you can be understood and part of telling the truth is knowing that you’ll never know someone else’s truth until you hear it directly from them rather than assuming you know what someone has experienced or what’s best for them.”

This made me think of a deeply held belief that I hold with my partners at Foundry Group – brutal honesty delivered kindly.

When I invested in Moz, I thought a lot about TAGFEE, which is Moz’s code that reflects their core values.


I especially keyed in on Transparent, Authentic, and Empathetic as these three are core personal values of mine. However, these three ideas often come into conflict. It’s hard to be transparent and empathetic at the same time. Consider the situation where you fire a person. Legally, you likely have some constraints on what you say, limiting your transparency. You want to be empathetic to the person you fired, so this again limits your transparency (or, if you are transparent, you likely aren’t being very empathetic.) And then, at a meta-level, you will have some internal struggles with your authenticity around this situation.

The tension between the concepts is helpful as it makes you think harder about how you comport yourself is difficult, challenging, or complex situations.

The solution between me, Seth, Jason, and Ryan is to be brutally honest at all times but deliver feedback kindly.

While I’m sure we hold back on occasion, especially when one of us is unclear on what is going on, we subscribe to the notion of brutal honesty. We try hard to be fair witnesses in the style of my wife Amy, saying what we believe to be the truth. When it’s a hypothesis, we frame it as such. When it’s an assertion, we state that. When it’s something we feel strongly about, we preface it appropriately. And when it’s a fact that we are certain of, we are unambiguous in what we say.

No matter how difficult, sharp, upsetting, or confrontational something is, we always deliver the message kindly. We are not decedents of the Stepford Wives and we each have our own personalities, so “delivered kindly” means something different for each of us. But we never mean malice, harm, or disrespect. We are quick to own our opinions, especially when we are wrong. And when on the receiving end, we listen, and try to understand the other person’s truth, as well as our own, and then reconcile them.

If you sat in a meeting with us, you’d see no yelling. No pounding on the table. No grandstanding. No aggressive body language. No passive aggressive behavior. But you would hear a lot of brutal honesty, And you’ll hear it delivered kindly.

  • Jo T.

    I love the concept of being a “fair witness.” Brilliant!

    • It’s one of my favorite concepts from one of the most epic scifi books of all time (Stranger in a Strange Land).

  • Rich

    “If you sat in a meeting with us, you’d see no yelling. No pounding on
    the table. No grandstanding. No aggressive body language. No passive
    aggressive behavior. But you would hear a lot of brutal honesty, And
    you’ll hear it delivered kindly.”
    That’s a great environment! Being around high energy, intense, and passionate people who can control how they deliver their message makes for a good team.

  • So well stated. Reminds me of what my father-in-law always says when it comes to good communication: Be honest, be kind and have a purpose.

  • Brutal Honesty, No Disrespect, No Grandstanding …What a Triumvirate!

  • heyehd

    I read this article a couple of times (Joah’s comment is brilliant by the way) and I struggle to know how to separate truth from opinion from fact. Some people regard their opinions to be truths and deliver them as such. “Truth is in the eye of the beholder” I guess. Facts, on the other hand, usually stand on their own and I listen to them closely.

    “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts“ – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  • Lol. It’s what I try to do with my comments. Not everybody gets it.

    • I get it and enjoy it!

    • Rick

      They’ll catch on eventually.

  • I know this is off topic for this post and I’ve never commented on anything regarding your personal life as a matter of policy but I really hope you are able to keep control of your depression. Its really really important…

    • Thx Frank. Today was upsetting. Robin Williams, along with Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase are my favorite actors / comedians. They are totally of my generation and all could cross over from comedy to serious acting. Amy and I talked a few times about this tonight. I appreciate your concern.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of a great quote on empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen: Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy is soluble.

    • Great great quote.

  • Gaurav Varma

    Hi Brad, So important to recognize the role of empathy and kindness. I am so glad you do but to be honest, very few people choose to follow that path and because I am in Business School today and most times at the receiving ends of things be it from staff, colleagues or recruiters, I see how rare it is. I am sharing with you a post I published on Linkedin hope you enjoy this, Good Luck ! My Best wishes.

    • Random acts of kindness are wonderful – well done! Praise to you. See some more good karma at

      • Gaurav Varma

        Thanks so much Brad, you are such a wonderful person. I enjoy reading your blog. Actually, I have been reading your post for over a year now and they are so insightful.

  • Philip Smith

    Brad . . . certainly wished that I had read this or had a discussion along these lines when I was new to the business world with an MBA (maybe it should be part of a curriculum). My basic philosophy was very different then it is today.
    “No one should ask me a question or for my opinion unless they want an honest answer”. While I still believe the hard truths are sometimes necessary, my delivery has changed dramatically.
    People are less likely to take something personally if it is delivered in a kind respectful way.

    • It’s interesting to think about weaving this into MBA-land. I wonder how much the culture of MBAs in business goes against this. I remember when schools started teaching “ethics” (especially HBS).

      • tim_shisler

        I don’t have an MBA so it would be foolish for me to chime in on what is taught or should be taught in business school, but from observation there is a hole in the way we prepare leaders. Training seems to start with all the right buzz words — honest feedback, re-imainge, forward thinking, honest feedback, etc. — but fizzles where I feel true leaders are formed– through the power of observation, empathy and connection.

        I had a college professor spend a semester showing tape after tape of social interactions breaking down visual and verbal cues to help us piece together what was truly happening. She forced us as a class to build the narrative before speaking a word and anticipate not just the immediate reaction to our words, but the long-term reaction. From that moment my life was changed. I put my learnings into practice while working for an angle investor in the Bay Area and spending my summers as a river guide. Nothing beats learning how to give hard feedback and needing that feedback to show immediate results when you’re standing above a class IV rapid and need your crew to work with you.

        But do I do it every time today? Not even close. Which is why I try to force myself to slow things down when needing to be critical or deliver feedback. Two breaths, watch the eyes in the room, shoulders, hands, posture and quickly go over the last few sentences looking for words that are defensive or offensive. If I do that there’s a good chance I won’t be decked when I speak up.

        • mike

          Having transitioned from the military to the civilian world via an MBA, I can’t honestly refer to anything I experienced during the latter as adequate preparation for anyone to lead anything.

  • Joseph Jones

    It’s posts like this that make me want to work with the Foundry Group.

    • Thx! Reach out anytime.

    • Joseph, if you get the opportunity, seize it. After working with Foundry for four years I can tell you they actually operate like this. And it makes all the difference.

      • Joseph Jones

        Thanks Charlie.  When the day comes that I seek capital for mpression; I’ll be looking for a mutually beneficial financial opportunity, yet VCs with the values like Brad and Jason are what I’m really seeking…

  • To be strong yet kind is a sign of great maturity – no easy task for any man or woman.

  • GraehamF

    Hi Brad, great post. I would love to develop my skills at “brutal honesty delivered kindly” – it is a skill I see in the best leaders. Do you have any recommended books on the subject?

    • No books come immediately to mind but I’ll ponder this.

      • GraehamF

        Awesome, thanks! 🙂

    • Guest

      I’m guessing Jerry Colona has a lot to say here. At least from watching this video

    • Richard Leavitt

      I’m guessing Jerry Colonna has a lot to say here. At least from watching this video

  • Roberto Krishan

    I am a true believer of brutally honesty deliver with kindness. It’s the only way to move forward fast.
    I have more respect when one tells me direct what one thinks than to keep sugar coding or saving face.

    You are lucky to have created a superb corporate culture.
    Unfortunately, not every start-up / corporate world is like
    that. I have experience that brutally honesty, even delivery with kindness, is an attack on someone else’s personal EGO. And then.. you know what happens: the cancer of “work politics” appears.

    One spends more time and mental energy defending their EGO than getting the job done.

    All best,

    Roberto Krishan Srivastava —

  • mtanne

    Excellent principles well articulated. It helps to remember the other party will be having an emotional response to your message. Depending on how strong of a reaction they may hear little or none of our message, however true or accurate. Take Brad’s example of the person being being fired and think what must be going through their mind – self doubt, anger, injustice, fear… At times we may find it difficult to express the truth because of how it may be received. In each of these circumstances it’s great to remember honesty and empathy, and the potential costs of not doing both.

    Another way to frame this is used in some circles as SET-UP: Support, Empathy, Truth accompanied by Understanding, Perseverance.

  • Greg Kramer

    Seems perspective is important for brutally honest feedback delivered kindly, e.g. here each party thinks they are both right and delivering brutal feedback kindly.

    1) Sweetheart, Iove you but god is dead.

    2) Love you too but you are going to burn in hell with that belief