Feb 12, 2018

Jenn Discovers Honesty

I've traditionally had terrible luck when I try to be honest with friends. When I try to intervene in an emotional situation, or even to answer questions honestly like, "Do you think I'm being irrational?" or "What do you think of this outfit?"

I had come to the conclusion that people really just want reassurance; they don't want honesty. That outfit looks great, your significant other is an asshole, girrrrl you've never been wrong a day in your life!

I'd mostly made peace with this philosophy but occasionally, usually when talking to more blunt or honest people, I'd feel twinges. Not of guilt, exactly, but I knew I wasn't behaving with integrity.  It didn't feel right.

So I gave the honest, tough love approach another go.  I sent an awkward text to a friend to let her know I thought she was treating someone inappropriately.  And another awkward text to a family member letting him know I thought his behavior was out of line.  And when a close friend asked, "What issues do you see with my relationship?" I suppressed that inner voice screaming "don't do it!!!" and made her a list.

Her response?  Well, it could have been worse I suppose.  But she was upset and didn't understand why I was being so harsh and really it's none of my business.

Fan-fucking-tastic.

"Ok," I thought. "Honesty doesn't work."

But after talking it over in a group text with some friends who are probably my best role models for balancing "I support my friends" and "I tell it like it is" I realized honesty wasn't the problem here. The question was the problem.

Their relationship IS none of my business.  Admittedly my friend invited me into it when she asked that question, but I didn't have to let her.  I can be honest with her and still stay out of her business.

So the next time she asked my thoughts on something relationship-related (and yes, it did happen again), I recognized the question for what it was. She wasn't asking me for an analysis, or suggestions. She was asking for reassurance, even if she didn't realize it.

I could be honest by refusing to give reassurance that something was ok when I don't believe it to be.  But I could also keep my nose out of her business by stating the (in hindsight) obvious, "You would know better than I would - I'm not actually there when any of this is happening."

I'm sure another friend with thicker skin could handle real feedback.  But now I try to assess what a person is looking for before diving into their love life with a self help book in one hand and a list of relationship counselors in the other.

Another opportunity to practice arose not long after the first fiasco.  Another friend, another relationship problem.  This time I was convinced that it wasn't issues on both side that could use honest communication or counseling.  The description of her significant other's behavior made me feel alarmed, disgusted, and concerned.

Of course they got back together, and I knew continued voicing of my opinion wasn't going to help.  But I also knew I couldn't stay silent.  So we met up once, I explained my concerns and that I couldn't continue to be friendly towards him but I'd still like to be her friend if she was ok with that, and that was that.

I think it went over so much better this time both because this friend wasn't as emotionally fragile, but also because I did a better job of assessing what she wanted to hear.  I balanced saying what I felt needed to be said with supporting my friend and I think it was ultimately positive for both of us.  she knows how I feel but still feels comfortable confiding in me.

I've been a terrible friend in the past.  When my friends make terrible decisions, I've berated them, nagged them, and generally made them feel even worse about it than they already did.  Ultimately that approach is pointless.  You can't "slap sense" into people.  They have to recognize their own issues and decide to action on their own.

And when I really dug down into why it bothered me, the reason was because I cared about their well-being.  I wanted them to have fulfilling, easy lives and to be happy, and watching them make choices that took them in the polar opposite direction was frustrating.

Telling people that instead of yelling has been a much better approach.  "I care about you and want you to be happy, and I consistently see that you're unhappy after spending time with this person you're dating" goes over much better than "He's an asshole, treats you badly, and you deserve better."

The last piece of the puzzle that JUST clicked into place for me was boundary setting.  I don't have to carefully reserve honesty for when my opinion is solicited or to inform my friends of truths they might need to hear.  I can also use it to set boundaries and for my own mental health.

I recently told a flaky friend how frustrating it is when she cancels last minute.  I told her that it was hard to tell if she wants to be friends with me and that I'd much rather be turned down for things than canceled on.

I don't know if we're still friends - she hasn't answered yet.  But the alternate path was to drop her as a friend anyway, because after someone bails on me 3 times, I stop inviting them out.  So at least this way I gave her a chance to talk it out with me, if she wanted to.

And I feel better.  No lingering resentment or irritation.

Having discovered this tool, it's one I intend to wield liberally whenever my friends stray from venting into constant negativity.  I can listen to you describing a frustrating day at work.  I won't listen to the same daily rant about how much you hate your job while you do nothing to improve that situation.  It doesn't solve your problem and it brings us both down.

Maybe this is a skill that most people just know how to use.  But I've struggled my entire adult life to figure out how to resolve conflict with people.  Literally telling people how I feel just never occurred to me until recently.

I have a coworker who uses emotion talk quite liberally at work.  He's the epitome of thin-skinned so it doesn't take much to set him off, and I watch in absolute horror as someone asks him for something and he launches into, "When you say that, it makes me feel..."

Get those emotions out of the work place!  You're embarrassing us all, man.

I'm still not 100% convinced that emotion talk is needed to resolve work conflicts, BUT they are helping me immensely in my personal life now that I finally started applying them outside of marriage.

If I had written this post listicle style, I would have said that there are 5 things I've learned:

  1. Figure out what people are really asking for
  2. Deliver it as concisely as possible and then get back to the support role
  3. Focus on why I want to share this with them rather than what I think they're doing wrong
  4. It's ok to put my own emotional needs first
  5. An awkward conversation is forgotten a lot sooner than bottled resentment

Your turn - tell me about your strategies for being honest with friends!  Better yet, tell me about times when honesty blew up in your face (so I don't feel so dumb about mine).


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