Relationship Myth #27: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
No one likes to be the recipient of bad news, particularly when it’s about themselves. We don’t like to be confronted, even in a nice way, for being the cause of someone else’s distress or failing to keep an agreement.
Many of us also have a strong tendency to withhold giving input to others that we fear may cause them to feel upset or angry. We are reluctant to say things to others that aren’t “nice,” perhaps out of an awareness that, if we do, they will be more likely to reciprocate in kind. Consequently, we may adopt some effective ways of discouraging negative feedback or invalidating such feedback when we receive it.
While this strategy may protect us from receiving messages that we’d rather not hear, there is a downside to it. When we prevent the messenger from giving us the message, we deny ourselves valuable information about how we come across to people and how they respond to us. Our self-assessments aren’t necessarily the most accurate portrait of how others see us. There’s a world of difference between being open to hearing the experience of others and feeling compelled to win everyone’s approval.
Here are some examples of responsible feedback: “I was disappointed when you didn’t keep your agreement to follow up on the project that we’ve been working on.” Or, “When you didn’t show for our meeting, I became worried that something had happened to you, and I thought that perhaps I had written the wrong time in my appointment book.” Or, “I got angry at you and quit talking yesterday when I felt frustrated with your continual interruptions when I was trying to speak.” Or, “I’m noticing that I’m less trustful that you’ll keep your word, since the last four times that you’ve promised me that you would do something, you didn’t do it.”
It’s hard when someone whose opinion of us matters expresses mistrust, disappointment, anger, or other negative emotions. When we minimize or diminish the legitimacy of another’s feelings by justifying our behavior or telling them that they are making a bigger deal out of something than it is, we let them know that we are not receptive to their feelings and that we don’t respect their concerns. It doesn’t take many responses like this to stop the other person from sharing any thoughts or feelings that they fear may trigger defensiveness. The consequence is almost always a diminishment in the level of trust and respect in the relationship.
At one time or another, most of us have been on both sides of this kind of situation. As you probably know, dismissive responses generally are very ineffective strategies for getting the job done, that is, if the “job” is to discredit the other person’s perceptions by making them wrong for feeling the way they do and for honestly expressing themselves to you.
This in no way is meant to suggest that one should tolerate disrespectful reactions or unsolicited criticism from others. Responsible feedback expresses one’s own feelings in an effort to help and to fix a problem, but not everyone has this goal. Delivering judgments, blame, or condemnation of another is something else altogether.
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According to author M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled: “A failure to confront is a failure to love.” Although there is a lot of truth in what Peck says, more often than not our defensive attempts to silence someone who is giving us difficult feedback are driven by a desire to prevent our image from being tarnished. The bottom line is that we don’t want to look bad, to ourselves or to others. And bad is how we think we will look if we’re caught in the act of being unreliable or insensitive.
When our actions reveal unattractive aspects of our personality — because we used angry or disrespectful words, engaged in hurtful behaviors, or violated a trust — it’s natural to want to explain or justify ourselves in order to avoid the shame or embarrassment we feel.
“Shooting the messenger” isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with someone who is bringing us this news; however difficult it is to accept, such information is worth listening to. Sometimes we may not be aware of our transgressions, and even if we are, we may not want to be made aware of how it has impacted another person.
While reacting defensively with hostility or judgment when confronted with someone’s feelings may intimidate that person into shutting up or retracting their words, there is a downside to winning that game. These feelings don’t go away; they go underground, below the surface of awareness, and they will arise from time to time in various forms, directly or indirectly expressing themselves.
Consequently, when couples find themselves arguing over topics like money, sex, kids, and in-laws, these subjects can be cover-ups of the actual concerns. Often underlying these symptoms are issues of power, control, respect, trust, freedom, or acceptance.
When it comes to dealing with broken agreements or with emotions that arise between people that need attention and understanding, there is no such thing as “no big deal.” Any disturbance that is unacknowledged or unattended is a big deal, and it quickly becomes a bigger one if it is denied or invalidated.
Honest Feedback Requires Courage and Sensitivity
Confronting our partner with honest feedback requires both courage and sensitivity. It’s not just a matter of speaking the truth of our own experience, but more importantly, expressing it in a way that is respectful and responsible. That is, without blame, judgment, or accusation.
When we do this, there is still the possibility that they may respond with defensiveness or anger. These feelings can, however, be dissolved through continued constructive dialogue, and in the process the relationship will be strengthened. When we withhold our truth, this impacts the integrity of the relationship, and this will put us on a very slippery slope downward.
As we learn to be both respectful and honest in delivering news that isn’t easy to give, and to be open and non-defensive in receiving that news, we not only preserve the integrity of our relationship, but also deepen the level of trust that we share.
Managing the emotions that inevitably arise when we really listen to each other’s concerns requires tolerance and restraint. It’s in the crucible of relationships that we find the motivation to strengthen these and other personal traits and qualities, and in the process we open the possibility of shifting the trajectory not only of our relationship, but also of our life. And that is a big deal!
* Subtitles by InnerSelf
©2016 by Linda and Charlie Bloom.
Reprinted with permission from New World Library.
Happily Ever After...and 39 Other Myths about Love: Breaking Through to the Relationship of Your Dreams
by Linda and Charlie Bloom.
About the Authors
Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, married since 1972, are bestselling authors and the founders and codirectors of Bloomwork. Trained as psychotherapists and relationship counselors, they have worked with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations since 1975. They have lectured and taught at learning institutes throughout the USA and have offered seminars throughout the world, including China, Japan, Indonesia, Denmark, Sweden, India, Brazil, and many other locations. Their website is www.bloomwork.com