Telling someone exactly what you think—of their behavior, an unflattering haircut, the new dress that should have remained on the clearance rack of the store, or your friend’s annoying habit of slurping soup—never ends right there. People often react appropriately with hurt or anger. Even with the careful choosing of words, negative comments and criticism, even if motivated by the intention of being helpful, are best expressed with care.
I learned an important life lesson at age seven. I was in second grade and it was holiday time and we were instructed to pick the name of a classmate from a bowl and buy them a present/toy and they would buy one for you in exchange. I remember going to the five and dime store obsessed about finding the perfect present and choosing a toy that seemed really cool. The day arrived when it was time to exchange presents and my classmate opened mine first and reacted in delight. And then I opened her's and it was a washcloth in the shape of a hand. I remember looking incredulously at the washcloth thing and thanking her for the gift... and adding that I thought she got the assignment wrong and perhaps she didn't understand that it was supposed to be a toy and not a washcloth, thinking it might help her for the next time. I don't remember her name but still remember how she looked when I said that to her and it wasn't good. In expressing my feelings, I hurt hers. It was clearly way more hurtful to her than a positive for me.
In my work as a therapist, I help people process some of the insensitive things that have been said to them. Although we live in a culture that celebrates directness, assertiveness and the ability to be heard, all behaviors have consequences. The consequence of saying exactly what you are feeling with little thought to how it might be received runs the risk of being taken as an offense, being experienced as an affront or an attempt to undermine a relationship. There’s a judgment call that goes with expression and oftentimes our own needs trump being mindful and considerate of the other. I’m not suggesting that asserting yourself should not be done or that it is a problem, but it’s the ability to err on the side of kindness that I’m suggesting instead. Taking a moment to think before we speak might just be the thing to do.