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.