I was raised to always speak politely to others regardless of who they were or what was transpiring between us. I never cursed, raised my voice, criticized, or humiliated others. In fact, I was sometimes encouraged to suppress my real thoughts and words in order to protect the feelings of others. As I grew into adulthood, however, I sometimes found myself remiss in practicing what my mother had so strongly instilled in me. While I remained acutely cognizant of others’ feelings, what came out of my mouth at times would have greatly disappointed my mother, for it surely distressed me.
Upon entering midlife, I became employed at a battered women’s shelter and spent 15 years working with women whose views on appropriate communication were radically different than mine. Telling it “like it is” was widely accepted by most – regardless of how offensive, inappropriate, rude, or hurtful it was. “If someone can’t handle it, oh well. That’s not my problem. This is who I am and I’m going to tell people the truth about themselves even if they don’t like it.” Their lack of concern for the feelings of others appalled me.
One needn’t be mean or hurtful when speaking the truth. Most “truths” are in reality only opinions or perceptions, to which we are certainly entitled. But rarely do people express fact. “You’re weird/ugly/selfish” is subject to interpretation; it is an opinion not necessarily shared by everyone.
I am an advocate of truthfulness in communication. For any relationship to thrive, people must learn to share their thoughts honestly. But doing so need not entail hurting, offending, embarrassing, cursing at, or disrespecting the other party. We can say what we mean without being mean. Consider the following suggestions:
- Speak without offending: Carefully choose your words so as to minimize the chance of hurting the other person. Think about how your words may sound to someone else. Modify them if necessary. Remember, there are multiple ways of saying the same thing. Practice thoughtfulness rather than arrogance.
- Listen without defending: Hear with the intent to understand what other people are saying rather than taking a defensive posture to protect yourself from their comments. Never retaliate with cutting, cruel, or unkind remarks.
- Practice heart/brain communication: Most people converse using their ears (hear), brains (process information and formulate a response), and mouths (verbalize a reply). But before responding, allow the other person’s words to touch your heart and temper your answer with compassion.
Express your feelings, concerns, or anger to the other person; never take out your anger on him or her. Attack the issue at hand; never attack the person. Reasonably debate the matter if necessary.
There is never an excuse to be mean. Kindness is always an option. Speak your truth, but always do so with thoughtfulness and respect. In that way, both parties maintain their dignity, the relationship is preserved, and real solutions can be forthcoming.