Working in the field of human development means I get a front seat on some of the most interesting aspects of how people communicate, which has highlighted that many of us are afraid to be honest with one another. Honest when it counts, when someone needs clear feedback or a better understanding of the context they are immersed in (or creating). It is easy to do for someone whom you know is learning - a child, a new co-worker or a student. However, within our day-to-day activities there is a tendency to shy away from taking this on for those we interact with both at work and at home. We shy away from being the one who helps bring a deeper understanding to someone in a timely way. Put your hands up if you have ever been in a circumstance to offer something (feedback, an observation, etc.) but avoided it because you hoped the problem would naturally get better with time, just “blow over” or fix itself. Yup. My hand is up too.
Now think about a time when someone gathered their courage, and spoke to you with honest kindness, allowing you to see something important. Did it help you in some way? Did it allow you to make a change that brought greater well-being or a better outcome? How did you receive it?
I have had many of those moments in my life, and I am grateful for every one of them. From the person who helped me to understand that the price tag was still attached to the back of my blouse (right before going into an interview), to the many colleagues and co-workers over the years who told me something I needed to know about the way my actions were impacting others. I say that knowing this information was often not welcomed; it was always a disruption in the midst of my busy day, a disruption with negative emotions attached, like shame, sadness or excruciating vulnerability. However, even in the midst of a storm of emotions I didn’t want to feel, the feedback helped me to make adjustments in “real time” that opened the opportunity for me to be my best self. You may have experiences like this as well – we all do, which is why we often pause before creating those feelings of vulnerability for someone else (no matter how well intentioned). No one likes to feel insecure or ashamed, we are often quite sensitive to this.
Beyond the feelings we may create, what else stops us from offering a valuable perspective to others when we can see something they can’t? Often it is a lack of confidence in our ability to communicate skillfully during an exchange that we anticipate may become strained, difficult or even heated. As my example above illustrates, it is likely that what you have to offer is not expected or welcomed, and it takes time to deliver this information in a way that keeps the other person’s best interests at heart (especially if they are scowling at you as you talk). Often we are unsure about the response our words will elicit, so we question if we even have the right approach, or words, to skillfully give someone the honest feedback they need. We may even be unsure of the value of what we think we should be saying. When we come up to the point of mentioning something, we find our “edge” and often back away, telling ourselves “It is none of my business.” “I’m sure someone has already mentioned this to him/her before.” “I may not have all the information here.” These are all good things to weigh when we are considering giving someone feedback, or helping someone to see something they can’t, but too often these things become excuses letting us off the hook, so we don’t do it.
At other times, we are committed to doing it, but wait for what we tell ourselves is the “right moment” to point something out to another person, when all the best conditions are present. Usually when we see they are having a good day or are in a good mood and less likely to be upset with us, then BOOM, we give them feedback. Catching them completely off-guard... discovering there never really is a “right” time to give someone a different perspective. Except there is – and it is right in the moment that it is happening, right in the moment you can see something the other person cannot and you know in your heart he or she would benefit greatly from your perspective. Behavioural science tells us that people learn best when they are working with a live example, and so the kindest thing you can do is give someone feedback directly in the moment (one-on-one, not with an audience), or (when it is more appropriate) immediately following the moment. To work with this a bit, consider a time when someone said something to you in conversation that you found offensive, but you didn’t tell him or her. What happened to your narrative (i.e. your internal monologue) about that person? It probably wasn’t positive, especially if the person wasn’t aware that what they did was offensive, and so they continued to do it periodically. This doesn’t end well, does it? You either avoid this person so you don’t have to run the chance of hearing something offensive, or constantly make excuses for them (even if it is just in your own mind), or (worse), you stick it out only to “leak” your feelings out of your edges, by displaying adversarial body positioning, applying sarcasm, or saying something offensive back (or gossiping about them behind their back).
Now play this out, if you had addressed it directly with the person the first time: “Barb, I know it was not your intention, but your joke about special needs children was hard for me to hear and I would be grateful if going forward you didn’t make them the focus of your humour. I really enjoy your company and I want to be able to comfortably chat together, which is why I am bringing this up. If there is anything you would like me to be mindful of I am open to your feedback as well.” Barb may not like what she hears, but it does allow for an open and honest dialogue that lays the groundwork for a positive relationship. Note the honest kindness in this feedback – it was offered to ensure there was a path forward to have a comfortable relationship based on openness to dialogue and feedback. It is also key to note that while immediate feedback is best, you always have 24 hours to say something, giving you the time and space to sort out your feelings and think about what you want to say – the important thing to remember here is to do it, no matter how uncomfortable you feel about it the next day.
What this example illustrates is that going internal with our feelings (i.e. into our heads) isolates us. Staying with your original feeling and intention, really staying in, and seeing what is behind it, allows you to respond to what you are experiencing. It also lets you to explore what else the feelings hold, allowing you access compassion and support for another, and acting from there (even when you are challenged to do so). It is not easy to be the one person who can “see” something another individual can’t. It takes a lot of courage to step up and help, but it is important to do this to enable others to be their best when the opportunity presents itself, allowing them in turn to support you in the same way.
Honesty is a form of kindness when it is applied with compassion and with another person’s best interests at heart.
The middle of January approaches, and for those of us who endeavor to make resolutions (and stick to them) this is often the litmus test. Are you still honouring your commitment to change? Have you faithfully stuck with your resolution and are enjoying this time of renewal and reflection or are you white-knuckling it with gritted teeth waiting for it to be “over”? Perhaps it is a little of both.
Most New Year’s resolutions don’t make it past the finish line in our lives (or even the end of January). This isn’t because of our inability to stick to something (we stick to, and make things happen, everyday). It’s often because of our approach to change. Making a New Year’s resolution is a very cognitive event. What I mean by that is we do it with good intentions but it is in our heads, and often has an intent that reflects, “I should do this”. I should eat better. I should quit smoking. I should get out and exercise more. We may spice up that “should” with investment in a support program, an app or a membership to stiffen our resolve, or add a bit of fun to it, and all of those things can help us to get benefits out of a resolution, but even they may become part of our guilt (rather than a partner in our ultimate success).
Lets break this down a bit further. For the sake of example let’s use weight management as a resolution. Let’s also assume, for the example, that you know how to do this – you’ve embarked on a diet or healthy eating plan before, been able to stick to it, and you have seen the intended results. So you have all the education you need to do this. And for the first few weeks things go well, but after awhile, making a choice between what you “should do” and what you “want to do” gets harder and harder, especially as the number of times you’ve forgone that “want” pile up, and you may (or may not) be seeing the results you hoped for within all this deprivation.
This is pretty typical of most people’s journey through a resolution (weight loss or any other). You create a “rule” to do something differently and you “stack” that rule in front of everything you do in a day. Breakfast? Rather than the usual you opt for plain yogurt and berries. Coffee? No latte for you, just black. On it goes. Except that the stacking your New Year’s resolution as the first commitment you honour in any given scenario throughout the day is artificial. Can you see yourself looking at everything you do, eat or decide through the lens of whether or not it meets your resolution goal over the long term? Can you see yourself doing that for the rest of your life? To make this point, think about this - not one person in a retirement home is “dieting” – this is not something most of us will ever do for life. This striving through rules is often what happens through good intention but with cognitive (mental, rather than whole-life) execution; business meeting with your bosses over a meal and pretty soon all you can think about at that table is what you should or should not be eating, rather than focusing on the meeting content. Or worse, you are trying to do both. Ever wonder why when you embark on making a change you are so exhausted? Stacking a rules based intent in front of everything else you do gives you the temporary motivation and ability needed to make choices consistent with your resolution, but you have to hold everything else behind it – that is a lot of life to hold back – it’s tiring. To add to this your inner critic may have already told you that you have no chance of succeeding (long term) at your resolution. This furthers the effect of us getting “tight”. We tell ourselves “No! This time it will be different! You wait and see!” and we bear down in our change with all the finesse of a bulldozer – we create rules for ourselves.
Change is hard, it isn’t meant to be easy or light, even small changes require a measure of planning, commitment and effort. However, what usually burns us out is the lens used to “support” this change is rigid, requiring us to trade our self-respect for goal attainment (do it or you are a quitter). We put that lens in place with the hope that over time we will adjust, that soon the change we seek will become a natural part of us, requiring less effort. This happens, it is not impossible. However, often our journey of change becomes a journey of shame. There is a better way to make transition happen, and to allow our days to flow with a more natural intent and rhythm (even in the midst of change) rather than through rigidity, tightness and rules. That tightness is exhausting!
We also do not make sustained changes without empathy and compassion, especially self-compassion. Rather than giving yourself a list of “do’s and don’ts” as part of your resolution, look deeper, look past the cognitive idea of change and into your heart, into your whole life. Consider understanding why the change is important to you in your life (follow your intuition, your gut – and your heart). Maybe you would like to eat healthier because you want to physically feel better after meals (no more heartburn), or to set a good example for others. Why is this important to you? What does it hold for you? What does it build in you? Then, figure out what you need to do differently that also takes into account why this is important to you, supporting yourself compassionately (versus following a rule). It could mean that rather than counting calories or making choices that consistently deprive you of something, you decide to help yourself make reasonable food choices based on what is being called for in your day. With this view, you can spend 10 minutes each morning visualizing your day (using empathy), helping yourself to see that a nutritious breakfast and coffee without cream in the morning means you will be able to enjoy a piece of birthday cake with a loved one in the afternoon. The commitment is both to eat fewer calories in your day, and to enjoy yourself when it is meaningful to do so – to help you see when you can do both. Holding this change with a wider view that includes you head, heart and intuition, means you have more room to maneuver in your commitment, making it more likely that you will see your change happen, perhaps more slowly then a binge diet would, but in a healthier way and with more ability to make it a life change. It also means that if you invest in support through a program, app or membership you are more likely to use it because you are making the space to do so – it becomes part of why this is important rather than a measuring stick or guilt trip.
Alleviate the guilt associated with change because change will never happen in a straight line to success. There are set-backs and bad days, but ultimately if you know why something is important to you and can see what it will give you in your life, you’ll be better able to stick to your commitments, moving into the change in a way that includes all of you, the parts that are changing and the parts that aren’t.
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ABOUT MY BLOG
I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Facebook or Linked In.