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Macmillann 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.
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.
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.
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.