Radical Candor, Brutal Honesty, and Non-Violent Communication

TL;DR Non-violent communication may be more applicable than Radical Candor for guiding the Perl community toward more functional communal communication.

This post is a response to a reddit comment by xdg about Radical Candor.

On Radical Candor

Based on a quick read of some of the Radical Candor article I immediately recognize good foundations.

I'd not be surprised to hear that the approach works really well in a professional setting involving reasonably emotionally mature individuals with boss/staff relationships.


After a couple decades observing the vastly thornier problem of dealing with the issues that arise in a community like Perl's, I've seen approaches like Radical Candor completely fail far too often.

I've concluded that something else is going on (or is at least more determining) in voluntary communities, especially tech ones that develop online, and that something else is needed to deal with it.

I'll suggest an alternative/complementary approach at the end of this post but I want to first emphasize some things that look right to me about Radical Candor (and then I'll contrast it with what most folk who like the phrase "brutal honesty" seem to mean by it).

First, personal caring has to come chronologically first. And not just some lip-service but a firm establishment of a sense of genuine caring:

Scott’s boss, Sheryl Sandberg, suggested they take a walk together. She talked about the things she’d liked about the presentation and how impressed she was with the success the team was having

Only after that did Sheryl begin the Challenge Directly step, saying something that could be construed as negative but is clearly pure observation: "you said um".

The Challenge Directly part needs to start with a pure observation, something entirely non-subjective, or it's still likely to fail, no matter how great the Personal Caring worked out.

Only at the end is the most problematic bit, namely negative subjective thinking and language, even plausibly workable. In this case it's just "a lot".

As usual, this last bit utterly failed to stick at first -- Kim recognized that she did indeed say "um" but dismissed the "a lot" bit. But Sheryl had properly laid the groundwork and stayed the course to bring Kim around to seeing and integrating the truth.

On Brutal Honesty

(This may only come across as I intended it if the context I originally wrote it in is taken in to account.)

Radical Candor might sound like a smoother version of "brutal honesty" but it's really entirely different. I'm pretty sure I could do a decent job of steering a misguided employee away from "brutal honesty" and toward Radical Candor but that's not our context here.

Given that we're briefly in this more anarchic part of Rome where anything goes, let me relax a bit and simplify a lot and say this about "brutal honesty": it's ignorant bullshit that justifies aggression.

I'm sorry if that offends anyone. Well, no. I'm not sorry. If you're into "brutal honesty" and think Radical Candor and Sheryl's approach is a misguided walk on fragile eggshells then you're the problem. I haven't laid the right groundwork and don't have the time here to bring you around to seeing this truth, so if you're into "brutal honesty" please just consider my summary: you're emotionally dysfunctional and should stop speaking about how best to communicate.

(Or interpret my commentary as criticism that's just not compelling. Perhaps I haven't communicated brutally or honestly enough.)


So, what's an alternative?

In the years I've been exploring this topic non-violent communication (NVC) has long stood out as the world's most successful scalable protocol. My current favorite speaker on nvc is now going by the name Delilah de Cleyre and I'll leave her to introduce it for those not familiar with it. (I can provide more links if anyone needs them.)

The key characteristic of NVC that I suspect isn't shared with Radical Candor is being an asymmetric protocol that requires nothing of anyone but the practitioner and which reliably works well when properly applied even when one party is literally threatening to murder the other, or worse.

While I haven't seen Perl folk going around threatening to kill each other I do think the sort of angry thinking and expression that underlies such actions is all too prevalent and not fixable via anything less than a fully asymmetric protocol like NVC.

NVC is pretty simple but it's not easy. While it's been proven in difficult contexts such as conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians and between Hutus and Tutsis, it may not be up to the monumental task of guiding the Perl community to a brighter future. But one never knows so I thought I'd write this comment to see what happens...


Palestine is not a country, and never was.

I'm just being a dick; don't worry about it.

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About raiph

user-pic I blog about Perl.