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To Be Honest, Watch Out for Saying “To Be Honest”

To Be Honest, Watch Out for Saying “To Be Honest” - Janice Mars, SalesLatitude

To Be Honest, Watch Out for Saying “To Be Honest” - Janice Mars, SalesLatitudeMacmillann Dictionary defines the spoken phrase “to be honest” as one that is “used when telling someone what you really think, especially when it may be something they do not want to hear.” You may say it when you’re trying to soften a criticism, like the meal your spouse cooked was not exactly your taste, or that your client’s website looks like it’s from the 1990s.

If you’re human, you’ve likely said “to be honest” or any of its derivatives – honestly, to tell you the truth, in all honesty, to be frank – in your everyday speech. It’s one of the most overused expressions in the English language. But when you’re in sales, you need to be careful about how you use this phrase with clients and prospects.

Why Do We Say It?

Certain phrases just seem to creep into our daily speech. We hear them a few times and suddenly we find ourselves using them. We like the way they sound, and we may find they are useful. They may make it easier to say something difficult or buy us a few extra seconds to collect our next thought.

The use of the expression may even be a generational thing. It turns out that “to be honest” is a phrase that Millennials often use, usually with other slang like p (short for pretty, as in pretty happy). They expect “to be honest” to be followed by either a joke or a more sincere comment. In fact, they often abbreviate it tbh.

But the rest of us may have a different take. When people hear “to be honest,” they just don’t know what’s coming afterwards, which can leave them with a moment of confusion and almost dread. The expression itself signals a blunt statement, either good or bad. It could be praise, a reprimand, or a show of arrogance. The problem is the uncertainty around what’s coming next.

To Be Honest, or Not To Be Honest?

That is the question. The phrase to be honest is meant to signify the fact that the speaker is talking frankly. But it’s an odd phrase because it implies that the speaker isn’t being honest the rest of the time. Since this expression is really just padding and used by the speaker primarily to make themselves sound more important, most of the time you’ll find that the sentence stands up on its own without it. It can make you wonder what the speaker had been doing up to that point.

Instapage ranks the expression #2 on their 10 Common Phrases to Avoid When Dealing with Your Clients. They assert that any sentence that starts with “to be honest” never ends well. Have you ever said, “to be honest, the upgraded product design is perfect for you or to be honest, (fill in the blank)”? It could also, and most likely will, make clients wonder, “Were they not being honest with me before? “ They say it’s best to keep this one out of your communication with clients altogether.

What to Do About It

To be honest ends up adding very little to the majority of sentences in which it’s used. An example might be, “To be honest, I never thought it was a good idea.” Try to train yourself to express your thoughts and opinions without the phrase at all.

But in reality, you may not catch yourself 100% of the time. What the phrase to be honest does do is it stops the person in their tracks and gets them to listen. It suggests that you are saying what you really think, even if it is bad. It’s a cue that gets them to listen up and prepare for whatever’s coming at them.

Here’s some advice. If you hear the words “to be honest” coming out of your mouth, surprise the listener by following it up with something positive rather than negative. What you don’t want is to be seen as someone who bends the truth, gives off a negative vibe, or is condescending – especially as a sales person who is always trying to build trust with clients and prospects.


Janice Mars, Principal and Founder of SalesLatitude, is a sales performance improvement consultant and change agent focused on growing top performers to impact bottom line growth. With more than 30 years of experience as a senior business and sales executive, she helps companies build successful sales teams by maximizing their time and resources, selling from the buyer’s point of view, and strengthening the effectiveness of leadership. View my LinkedIn profile | Twitter


Janice Mars1 year ago

March 10 2021

Yep, we couldn't agree more!


Joe1 year ago

March 05 2021

So what people are actually saying is "Most of the time I lie, but this time, because I like you, I'm going to tell you the truth". Better to just eliminate the phrase all together.


Janice Mars1 year ago

January 26 2021

"To be honest", I can understand your frustration. Thanks for reaching out and sharing.


Sonny1 year ago

January 15 2021

I work with 7 people in my office area. Every one of them are non stop, I'll be honest with you, I'm not gonna lie, to be honest. It's like listening to a room full of liars trying to convince each other they're not lying. It constant, and it's driving me nuts


Leah Norman2 years ago

May 03 2020

Don't like "I'm not going to lie." That implies lying was a choice that you decided against at that particular time. In other words, sometimes you chose to lie and others you don't.


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