Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #15 – The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth*

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

While the importance of a commitment to truth is implicit in our exploration of opinion and fact in essay six (and, I hope, throughout this series of essays), truth deserves a more explicit starring role. Most of us have heard or read somewhere along the line that prior to testifying in court, we promise, swear or affirm that we will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Those words are generally familiar and in many ways carry meaning that is obvious (which won’t stop me from unpacking them):

  • Tell the truth: answer the question that was asked and don’t lie
  • Tell the whole truth: don’t leave anything out regarding your answer to the question that was asked
  • Tell nothing but the truth: don’t add or intermingle anything that’s not true in order to help your cause

While this essay does not address what happens under oath in a court of law, these three tenets are worth keeping in mind as we navigate the fate of truth in our day-to-day conversations – whether we are disagreeing, agreeing or casually passing the time. Also worth keeping in mind is the distinction between “the truth” and “truthfulness” – a distinction that informs this essay, and that I believe is accurate and useful. As we’ll use these terms here:

  • the truth refers to what is empirically provable1 and can be agreed upon by honest, competent observers who have no interest or investment in this truth being one way or another;
  • truthfulness refers to an individual’s honesty – choosing in any given moment to be honest –

“tell the truth” as he or she understands it; it is possible to be truthful and not tell what is empirically true.

If we revisit essay six’s auto collision at the four-way stop sign, the truth is that two cars made contact and sustained damage. Assuming for a moment that the drivers are honest and do not want to wrongfully vilify each other, each of them might be truthful in explaining what they think caused the accident (beyond agreeing that the cars collided and sustained damage), and each may be completely accurate, completely off the mark or somewhat accurate and somewhat off the mark amid their truthfulness.2

That’s a simple example and enough to make the point. In our disagreements and agreements with others, underlying our commitment to differentiating fact and opinion must be a corresponding understanding of and commitment to the truth and our truthfulness. Clarity of language is essential for such a commitment as is a willingness to do the work that clarification requires.

The complexities that characterize the content of much contemporary disagreement, the over-abundance of easily accessible information and much intentional misinformation that internet sources invite and allow, and selectively edited and sound-bitten televised news offerings render “the truth” at best difficult to identify, and at worst an unwelcome and troublesome nuisance. The ramifications of this complex over-abundance is especially evident among individuals who seem more committed to incessantly reasserting their biases in order to “win” the social media tit-for-tat or televised eye-rolling and shouting match of the day than to working toward an agreed-upon “truth” and negotiating in good faith with others who differ regarding how to interpret and act on this truth when it comes to local, national or international policy, whether to buy or lease, or which movie to see, diet to try or get-rich-quick scheme to purchase.

We return to intention. Why are you, am I, in this conversation at all, and what, if anything, does the truth, or our respective ‘truthfulnesses’ have to do with it? If nothing, then why bother? If something, why not everything? If everything, how might each of us behave if we were genuinely concerned with and committed to the truth and to being increasingly able to see each other’s truthfulness even as we disagree?

Don’t look to apparent leaders as exemplars for this behavior. Very few of them are up for the challenge, and while some may be, your best bet is to look within. Be the conversationalist you aspire to be. Take the risk of showing up with the intentions of understanding and learning, with nothing to prove, nothing to defend and nothing to lose.

In the next essay we’ll take a brief look back at the preceding 15 and explore a few exercises that can be helpful on the path.


*What we’re attempting to point to in this essay (and in this series) are useful, practical considerations for authentic conversation. We’re not delving into differentiating the mystical/spiritual realms of what is manifest-relative truth or Unmanifest-Absolute Truth; there is a time and place for these (even if time and place only exist on the manifest-relative plane) and this is neither.  

1What is “empirically provable” – i.e. true, shifts over time and with development. Cultures have (ever-evolving) maps of “reality” that represent what they believe is true. If something fits the current map, it’s “true,”; if it doesn’t, it’s not. E.g. prior to the mid/late 19th century bloodletting was an accepted “truth” in treating human ailments; over millennia it was true that first the earth (religion’s view), then the sun (early science’s view) was the center of the universe; the current (more advanced science) truth tells us that the universe is ever-expanding.

2Distraction, confusion, mechanical failure, etc. may come into play here, and even if each driver is honest, when faced with the possibility of insurance premiums going up, moving violations, having to explain to parents or spouses what happened, the temptation not to tell the whole truth or to in some way embellish it (telling something beyond the truth) might be tempting – putting them at odds with both “truthfulness” and the “truth.” That the two cars collided is the truth, as far as it goes. If our goal were to get to the truth of the cause(s) of this fictional collision we’d pursue this further. It’s not, so we won’t.

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