The Two Questions to Ask If You Want the Honest Truth


© 2012 by Aurelio Locsin.

Your favorite niece delivers an unwatchable performance of “Juliet.” Your spouse bakes a cake that is tasteless and has the consistency of rubber. Or your beloved grandparent finishes a wretched oil painting and bestows it to you at your anniversary party. Each of them then asks you, the most terrifying of questions, “Do you like it?”

Or you’ve spent much of the past week honing a speech that you must deliver at a company meeting in two hours. So just before leaving for work, you practice it in front of your significant other. You’re a sensitive sort but want an “honest critique,” so you ask “What do you think?”

The Right Answer?

The problem with these two questions is that only one answer is possible, if you have any desire to maintain your current relationship. It’s always “I like it” or “how nice” or “well-done!” Unless the opinion comes from a troglodyte who isn’t worth having a relationship with.

Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news especially when you know how hard someone has worked to achieve something. And you wonder in the back of your mind whether someone is actually asking for an honest critique or simply to have his effort validated. So, like the mother who beams at her toddler’s misshapen ashtray, you answer cheerily “I love it – really love it” when what you’re actually saying is “I acknowledge what you did and your effort was worthwhile.”

The Right Questions

You can’t control what other people ask. Neither can you get into their heads to find out what they really want to know. The best you can hope to do is fulfill the social contract that you both have signed.

So what do you do if you truly want an honest opinion because you want to improve your efforts. How do you open the door to an appraisal rather than a validation? Saying “really, tell me the truth” accuses the person of dishonesty and will only bring a more insistent response of “I am telling you the truth --- it’s really good.”

Rather than asking the standard “do you like it,” you can ask two simple questions, one right after the other: “What worked?” “What didn’t work?”

  • The first query allows effusive praise from the respondent. It enables her to feel good by stating, in so many words, “I acknowledge your effort, which was very good.”
  • The second question encourages her to speak honestly about some of the less successful parts of your effort. It lets her state things as a matter of personal opinion, rather than a factual statement of negativity. And it enables her to balance whatever bad she may hazard with the compliments she mentioned in her first response.

The result? Something you can use to do better next time.


As much as I’d like to claim credit for these two questions, they came from my first acting teacher, Norma Bowles, a wise and witty, always buoyant, utterly encouraging, and totally crazy woman. Her constant use of that query in her classes demanded honesty among all the students and allowed us to improve out abilities and grow with the critiques.

So now, it’s your turn.

What worked and what didn’t work about this writing? Please respond in comments.

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Comments 21 comments

Nicole N. 3 years ago

"Factual statement of negativity" -I will definitely be using this phrase in the near future!! I love it!

Point well proven! It shows that the person asking the question really wants an honest opinion or at least some helpful advice and will not be offended by anything that is said. We want our loved ones to do well, and we don't want them to be offended by words that are meant only to help. I will remember this in the future whenever I need some honest criticism.

Alecia Murphy profile image

Alecia Murphy 3 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

My friends and I in college would proofread each other's drafts and it was awesome. We always had something positive to say about how it worked and then a constructive tip on how to edit. The same goes for anything else. Now when I cook, I just ask- did you like it? What needs to change? And it definitely helps me get better.

Voted up, useful, and shared!

The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 3 years ago from United States

Sometimes I just want affirmation, but when I REALLY want an honest answer, I'm going to try your two questions. Thanks! (And thanks to you, too, Norma!) --Jill

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM

Those are two great questions and I think they worked! It allows for true analysis of the situation and how to improve if any improvement is needed. My question in the classroom was always, How can this be improved? Thanks for an interesting and informative hub!

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

This works! Your teacher gave you two helpful questions that can put everyone except perhaps the over sensitive at ease. It is very difficult to say, "Others may like it but I hate it" with any expectation of maintaining a relationship even if that is the honest-to-goodness way you feel, though, "How thoughtful of you" can help in some of your scenarios.

Remembering this hub will help me remember that not everyone wants a true answer to their questions.

Doodlehead profile image

Doodlehead 3 years ago from Northern California

Oh---this is so helpful and in the vernacular.....a nice way to ask. Thanks...I will apply this.

time2rite profile image

time2rite 3 years ago from Navarre, Fl, USA

This is will definitely get me the answers I am looking for. It's so much better to come from a positive standpoint than from a negative, which puts the other person on the defensive and can cause unnecessary hurt as well as a breakdown in communication. Thank you for the insightful hub!

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

What worked? Your great suggestions for handling some social situations such as someone asking if you liked their gift or performance.

What didn't work? Those questions won't work in some situations. For example:

You may ask a dear friend who drops by to visit, "I hope you didn't smell cat pee when you walked in the door. Did I get rid of the smell where the cat had an accident?" You, as the housekeeper, have been there all day, and your nose may have become desensitized to any lingering odor.

There's no, "what did/didn't work" in that kind of truly need an actual, honest answer, so you won't be embarrassed when guests come to visit.

(As for the unwanted gift...many years back, a gal I knew was opening bridal shower gifts, and one person who was unable to attend had sent a gift by mail. When the bride-to-be opened it, it was a .... a ....'s....well, WHAT was it? No one knew what the item was supposed to be. She tossed it aside on the pile with the comment, "Oh, it's the gift you give again." Everyone laughed, but I often wonder if that comment somehow got back to the gift giver....)

rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

This hub worked for me, simple as that. When someone asks my opinion about a gift my strategy is to lie through my teeth so as not to give offense. But I do like the two questions when soliciting an opinion. Only a jerk would want to hear a feel good answer rather than honest criticism. But I do like it when people gush about my books, lies or not.

SommerDalton profile image

SommerDalton 3 years ago

Well said. Great hub with very good advice, voted up.

alocsin profile image

alocsin 3 years ago from Orange County, CA Author

I like that question "What needs to change?", Alecia.

alocsin profile image

alocsin 3 years ago from Orange County, CA Author

Good point, DzyMsLizzy. Unfortunately, my set of questions won't work in every situaiton.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi alocsin,

I learned a new word! Troglodyte..."A person considered to be reclusive, reactionary, out of date, or brutish." Hopefully I won't be running into any troglodytes any time soon. Ha! I like those two questions and understand how they can be quite helpful if truly wanting assessment of one's work. Up votes and sharing.

rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Those two questions are crucial to constructive criticism. Great thoughts, well written!

rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

I think the two questions are indeed very good to elicit the right responses without offending feelings. Great hub indeed, Aurelio.

Voted up, useful and shared.

coffeegginmyrice profile image

coffeegginmyrice 3 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

If I ask the question "So, what do you think?"- this would have the receiver think of a better answer, give a little explanation than a quick lie. Should I accept how the reply was delivered back to me? Sure do and forget about the whole thing and not be offended because in the first place, I asked. I would know myself if coming from me- the work, performance or gift is not right to its perfection, beauty, usefulness, practicality, or whether it is likeable or admirable, and if I still throw the question or not, I know what the response and feeling would be like. :)

Useful and with a funny touch. Sharing this hub! Have a good day, alocsin.

Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

Great ideas for inviting open-ended feedback! These are also useful for classroom exercises where students critique each other. The instructor can pose these questions in a way that softens the 'constructive' elements!

lovedoctor926 3 years ago

good points you raised. I think that many people claim they want you to be completely honest with them but in reality they don't want to hear the truth. its just like asking someone whether u look good in a dress and that person were to say oh no it makes u look like a fat cow.... can u imagine the reaction u would get just by having being completely honest.

alocsin profile image

alocsin 3 years ago from Orange County, CA Author

It's one of my favorite words, Peggy W.

vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

This is great advice, and so true. If we really want an honest critique we need to take the pressure off our loved one and ask the right questions. Thanks so much!

MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

I love these two questions and how you identify the difference between "appraisal rather than a validation". That's what worked for me. I can't really see a down side to what you have written. Maybe, if I must say something (to answer your second question) I would have liked more examples. But, that's not really a negative - just a personal request. I really enjoyed your tips and plan to use them in the future.

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