Telling a Friend the Truth

Comments from a reader:

I’ve had several good friends tell me that if they’re having a bad day and want to be told what they want to hear, they steer clear of complaining to me. Simply because I’m not going to coddle them, I’m going to be honest. That actually made me happy. I’d rather be known as a dependable, honest friend, as opposed to someone that constantly tells people what they want to hear. In other words, a liar.

I could not agree more!

People tend to treat friends the way they treat themselves. If they’re in the habit of being honest and forthright with themselves, they will tend to treat their friends the same way. On the other hand, if they’re in the habit of lying to, or otherwise kidding, themselves—evading or denying important facts relevant to their lives—then they’ll do the same with friends.

Sometimes there’s an unspoken, but very real, ‘agreement’ between friends. The never-stated agreement goes like this: ‘If I don’t tell you what I think you’re doing wrong, you’ll never tell me what you think I’m doing wrong.’ Or: ‘I won’t ever challenge or criticize you, so long as you never challenge or criticize me.’

When you refuse to coddle people, it sometimes comes across as a shock to their system. If they walk around with magical thinking, myths or emotional narratives that make sense to them—but don’t conform to facts or logic—then they’re not emotionally prepared for you, a friend, to say, ‘Well, that’s not how I see it. Do you care to hear why?’

I am a great fan of authenticity. People sometimes think that’s harsh or harmful. Actually, the reason authenticity gets such a bad name is because people often exercise it when it’s too late. Or when the anger or resentment has so built up, that you cannot take it any longer. This is particularly true in marriages or romantic relationships.

True authenticity is a 24/7 proposition. You don’t just exercise it when you can’t take it any longer. Let’s say you have a friend who complains about problems in life. After listening to these complaints over and over, a pattern emerges. You find that the friend is creating his or her own problems, in many ways, through mistakes in judgment or choices. You choose to hold it in and listen to the complaints, silently and martyr-like. Sooner or later you can’t take it any longer, and then you lash out with something that is admittedly hurtful and unnecessary.

Authenticity will get the blame here. But the real blame is that you held back on your authenticity too long.

It takes some skills to develop authenticity. There are many ways to be authentic without being ‘mean’ or unduly harsh. If you think that honesty is mean no matter what, then don’t bother to read on. But the moment you see a contradiction or possible error in a friend’s actions or beliefs—as expressed to you—then it’s usually best to start with a question. Do what a therapist does. ‘It sounds like you don’t enjoy being around so-and-so. Why do you think you continue to do that?’ There’s nothing preachy, harsh or mean about this. But it asks a question, and invites your friend to look at her own role in her unpleasant associations. You can use this approach with any number of issues. For example, ‘I know how hard you work for your money. Do you think you got what you were hoping for, spending it on that?’

A word of caution about authenticity. It doesn’t mean giving uninvited advice. It does mean refusing to sit silently and uncritically when you’re hearing things that don’t make full sense to you. I’m not saying advice is always wrong. But it’s good to get ‘permission’ before giving it. The simplest way to do this is by asking, ‘Can I make a suggestion?’ Or, ‘May I make an observation?’

This is more than a courtesy. It’s a warning that you’re about to shift the context of the conversation. Like I said, many people are not prepared for the shift in context when you’re about to disagree—or merely ask a question—about their ideas or actions. Asking the question in this way prepares the person—and yourself—for that shift in context.

I don’t appreciate people who are mean, or who impose unsolicited advice. I find no excuse for emotional abusiveness. But I do value anyone who’s real. I’d rather someone have an edge or a bite than be a phony. It’s important they’re motivated by good intentions. By “good” I mean they’re honestly seeking the truth, not simply trying to be right or be “above” you. There’s a difference. The people to trust are the ones who are honest and objective with themselves, and who display the same integrity towards you.


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