The Key Difference Between Partial Truths and Whole Lies

This weekend we had beautiful weather and my son was eager to go outside and kick his soccer ball around. Instead of going to the park, he ventured onto our tiny patch of green in the back of our house and within a few minutes had kicked the ball over the neighbor’s fence. What happened next was eye opening.

My son knocked on the neighbor’s door to get back his ball, but they weren’t home. Finally, about an hour later, they pulled into their driveway, and he zipped to their door to ask for his ball.

He was told:

“I threw it back over the fence.”

Simple! Great! Thank you!

My son ran into our yard and that’s when I heard his wail. He walked inside to show me his deflated ball with hundreds of tooth marks. It was clearly not salvageable. Their dog had chowed on his ball to the point where it resembled a new fangled frisbee more than a soccer ball.

It wasn’t only the fact that his ball was now trash that was upsetting, but also the reply to the request to get back his ball. Yes, it was now back in our yard, but it was not exactly a ball anymore. Did not sit well with me.

So, did the neighbor lie when he said he threw it back into our yard? No, he did chuck it over the fence. Did he tell the whole truth? I’m going with no on that too. Partial truths and whole lies may look similar, but they’re not.

What do you think? Partial Truths, Whole Lies, or Something Else?

Scenario #1: Yesterday you gave your boss a key document to review.

You: Did you get a chance to review my document?

Boss: I did. Good work. I just left it on your chair.

When you get back to your desk, you discover a document with so many red marks that you have to turn it sideways to read all of the comments and suggested changes. By the time you get done with revisions, it will not remotely resemble your initial draft.

Scenario #2: You are unable to attend a client meeting with your team.

You: How did the meeting go?

Colleague: Great. They’re happy.

Turns out when they client expressed some concerns about your portion of the project, your colleague threw you under the bus. They commiserated with the client on your oh-so-shortsighted approach and vowed to keep an eye on you. That made the client happy.

Scenario #3: You asked your friend to go to a concert on Saturday night.

You: Wow! Justin Bieber concert this Saturday! We’ve got to get tickets!

Friend: I can’t. My grandmother’s in town. I’m totally bummed.

Your friend’s grandmother is in town but that didn’t stop her from going to see Bieber do his thing with three of your other friends. They didn’t include you in the original plans.

Scenario #4: You demand that your child cleans their room.

You: Clean your room, or you lose your iPad for three weeks! Do it!

Child: All done! Look – not a thing’s on the floor.

Your child is praying you don’t open their closet or lift their beanbag where months worth of stinky socks, toys and would-be trash are hiding. At least it’s true, the floor is finally clear and there is a path from the door to the bed.

Scenario #5: There are tons of rumors about layoffs. You ask for the truth.

You: I hear that layoffs are coming. Can you tell me the scoop?

Boss: Where did you hear that? I’d love to know.

Deflecting and redirecting the conversation your boss hopes that you don’t realize that they did not give you a straight answer. You’re not shocked when two weeks later half of your team gets their pink slips. You are disappointed in your boss and their lack of transparency. They had to know it was coming.

What’s the key difference between partial truths and a whole lies?


Who does your response most serve? You?

In every scenario above, it was easier to tell a partial truth than a painful truth. Self-protection and avoidance of tough conversations are common but are also not leadership. There are times when leaders have to step into what’s uncomfortable and leave easy behind.

Partial truths (aka lies) are told as a CYA. (unless of course it’s defending the existence of Santa Claus)

The truth doesn’t need spin, it needs compassion and courage. What if the neighbor had responded:

“I’m sorry. Our dog got to your ball. I had to throw it away.”

What if your boss said:

“Don’t be alarmed by all of the red marks. We can discuss it. They’re suggestions and ideas in addition to a few changes.”

What if your colleague said:

“I know that (your name here) is working hard on a solution. I’ll have them reach out to you. They regret that they could not be here.”

What if your friend said:

“I didn’t know that you wanted to go. I already have tickets. I wish I had asked you.”

What if your child said:

I cleaned up my desk and picked up my dirty clothes. I didn’t realize it would take so much effort to get organized. I’ll do more tomorrow too.

What if your boss said:

“I’m not able to disclose the details because I’m still getting information about the changes. I don’t want to give you bad information.”

In the absence of facts, we make up stories and most of them are not fairytales with happy endings

As for my son, we bought him a new ball. He loves it and has learned that there are consequences you can’t always predict. Also, he learned why it’s better to tell an uncomfortable truth than a partial one.


Step into your discomfort.

Lead with integrity to build trust.

Be a role model for respect, courage and compassion.

You always have a choice… tell the truth.

How will you stop telling partial truths in favor of speaking the whole truth? Even when it’s hard…