To Say or Not to Say

Communication about compliments and criticism

Posted Feb 12, 2013

“I appreciate you” or “I love you” are rarely words better left unspoken. With a person whose happiness you care about those two phrases cannot be said too often. Of course, they have to be accompanied by actions that also convey your message, but actions alone are often like an unfrosted cupcake – almost complete but there is something missing. Just like empty words that are never demonstrated, actions that back up your words must go together in order to delight, like a perfectly frosted cupcake.

So while words of affection and appreciation can hardly be said too often, there are other words and phrases that probably are better off not being voiced. In particular, if you say something to someone they won’t be happy to hear AND it’s nothing they can do anything to fix, think a few times before opening your mouth.

Many years ago when I enjoyed the personal growth groups of the 70’s and 80’s there was a communication exercise that often caused havoc…and positive changes as well. It began, as those exercises often do, with “Find a partner and sit down facing each other.” That was the easy part, even if you were shy or conflicted about selecting a partner. “Now, taking turns, tell the other person three things you like about him or her.” That was usually fairly easy as well, even for the shy or conflicted.

The next part of the exercise was to tell the other person three things you did not like about her or him. “I don’t like that you don’t seem to like me” came up with some frequency. “I don’t like that you mumble” or I don’t like the way you dress so sloppily,” were two I remember overhearing. What I remember vividly was a tall man who faced me, looking me over from head to toe, and then said vehemently “I don’t like that you’re so short!” “Well la di bloody da,” I responded and we both burst out laughing.

That was an easy one. He might not like me for being so short (for some reason) and I might not like hearing it (although I have no issues with my height), but the end result is “So what?”

It’s when intimates voice their criticisms or their unhappiness that these things can get dicey, like “I don’t like that you always start a conversation from the other room; I can’t hear you.” I’m certain you can immediately come up with many other common domestic complaints, even the proverbial neglected cap on the toothpaste tube.

Advice columnist Dear Abby had a rule for deciding whether to say something or not. She suggests asking yourself “Is it true, is it helpful, is it kind?” If you can’t say yes to all three, don’t say it. I think those are excellent criteria and I want to add my own: “Is there something to be done about it?” If, not, why say it? You don’t like that I’m short? Well, I can’t grow!

If you can’t follow up “I don’t like that you start a conversation from the other room” with a “Please come into the room where I am when you talk to me” or offer some sort of solution to the problem you present, you are almost asking for a defensive response rather than making things better.

There is also the matter of tact. You could offer a “That’s a terrible haircut!” You could say nothing or fib if asked whether you like it. Best of all, you can be truthful and not insulting by saying something like “I really like your hair longer. I think it’s much more flattering to your face.”

Definitely some things are unpleasant to hear and others unpleasant to say. Sweetness can not always drip from our lips like honey. It is much more pleasant to spend time with an intimate who is not carping or critical or nagging but one who offers honest feedback and presents solutions when a correction is requested. You can learn to do that. Now, can you also learn to not say what is better not to say or better said in some other way? I think so.