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Speaking a Truth that Hurts

Mustering the Courage to Give Direct Feedback

Whether you are typically cautious or assertive when it comes to stating your opinions without being asked, it is likely you shy away from telling a friend, colleague or family member something that you fear could hurt. The feedback could be as simple as letting a presenter know he has lettuce stuck between his teeth. It could be as beneficial as telling your co-workers their inability to collaborate with others is not only affecting the work flow but could come back to bite them in their performance reviews. Or it could be as helpful as sharing with your friend that people keep refusing her company because her negativity is a downer.

You want to let these people know the truth. You rehearse the words in your mind. You know your intent is good. Yet you still stay silent. Or maybe you share subtle hints, hoping they will understand and fix their appearance or behavior without you having to be bluntly honest.

We are humans who depend on relationships to survive. As adults, we rarely choose to deliberately do something that will hurt people we know. We especially avoid sharing a truth face-to-face that could embarrass, offend or wound someone we like.

On the other hand, it is likely you want people to tell you the truth even if it hurts. You might get defensive, but once you sleep on it, you realize that if the comments were made with good intent, they were helpful to some degree. So why can’t you return this favor for someone you care about or respect?

The next time you are anxious about sharing an observation that could hurt, first ask yourself if what you are about to share will help the person in the future or not. Consider that you might have been judging the person out of your own need to be noticed or right. Then, if you believe your intent is truly to help the person, contemplate these suggestions:

  1. Trust your inner voice. Your brain is masterful at talking you out of creating uncomfortable situations. Yet your nagging inner voice wants you to speak up. Quiet your brain to hear your voice.
  2. Question your fear. What is the worst that could happen? Consider the level of angst you feel now. Could living with the consequences of speaking up be easier than living with your fear? Is it your own embarrassment you are avoiding more than theirs? If you can, choose to be brave. Then keep your intent of helping in mind as you speak.
  3. Be strategic. Unless you are simply informing someone about a clothing, food or make-up gaffe, consider logistics as well as your words. Look for a comfortable and quiet place to talk. Limiting the distractions will help you express care and compassion as you speak. When your share your observation, be clear about the desired outcome now and in the future. Let the person know you are sharing your thoughts because you desire to help them to have something you know is important to them such as their professional future, collegial respect, friendship and love.
  4. Ask permission. Before you launch into your speech, you might ask the person if they would be interested and open to some observations you have had. If you sense their reluctance, you could ask if they would prefer a different time. Don’t use their rebuff as an excuse to back down. Agree on a time in the near future to talk.
  5. Clearly describe the impact of their specific oversight or behavior. A person might disagree with your interpretation of their behavior, but it will be harder for them to dispute the impact they are having on you or other people.
  6. If appropriate, share your intent. Let the person know why you care they have a more positive impact or outcome. Why are you sharing? What do you want for them as a result?
  7. Don’t question your value. If you are being honest and helpful, don’t beat yourself up if the person responds negatively. In the long run, you are developing your personal power as you become more comfortable with giving direct feedback.

Find more communication tips in Marcia's books, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction and Outsmart Your Brain: How to Make Success Feel Easy.