The Courage To Hear The Truth

Photo: pichado photography

Years ago, I was having lunch with a friend who’d developed a reputation for being difficult.  He complained frequently and bitterly, often about things no one else found bothersome.  In general, he was perceived as negative and over-entitled.  I thought most of the time the points he made were valid but that the way he expressed them was off-putting and prevented others from being open to his ideas.  After thinking about it for a while, I decided, for his sake, I should let him know.

Knowing full well the risk I was taking, I approached the subject as delicately as I could, focusing not on his behavior but on our mutual friends’ reactions to his behavior.  But he became indignant and informed me he’d rather not hear any truth that had the potential to hurt his feelings.  I apologized and told him I would respect his decision.  I never gave him feedback about anything again.

It could certainly be argued I was being insensitive and inappropriate.  And yet my intentions were sincere:  I thought letting him know the truth about how a large number of people were viewing him was compassionate (as Nichiren Daishonin wrote, “Good advice often grates on the ear”).  He was certainly free to continue behaving as he had, I thought to myself before I decided to give him the feedback, but from that point forward it would have been with eyes wide open.  If it had been me (and in the past, regarding other issues, it has been) though painful to hear, I’d want to know if I were having a negative effect on a large group of people, something I would view more as an indictment of my behavior than their reaction.

That I’d made a mistake in broaching the subject was clear.  I’d genuinely expected a different response (in retrospect, quite naively) given the brazen way he expressed his opinions without apparent regard to the reactions they engendered.  Well aware that most people say they want to hear truthful feedback but really want to hear only good things about themselves or their work, I was simultaneously impressed by his honest response to my intervention (ironic as it was that he was expressing his preference to hear complementary lies rather than harsh truths), and repelled by such a blatant disregard for honesty.

After our conversation I wondered if, on balance, I’d made a mistake.  On the one hand, I’d always considered that we have an obligation to point out our friends’ mistakes as long as we do so from a place of compassion and concern, especially when we perceive those mistakes as ongoing and harmful, either to themselves or others.

And yet, I paused to wonder, are the mistakes of another really our business?  Despite the poor outcome of my intervention, the more I considered the question, the more I felt the answer remained yes.  A simple metaphor helped make my thoughts on the subject clear:  would I hesitate even for a moment to point out what appeared to be a small malignant growth on a friend’s back that they couldn’t see?

It could be argued that a malignant growth is more easily and correctly identified as a problem with the potential to make its bearer suffer if not addressed than a negative behavior.  But in fact annoying or aversive behaviors aren’t difficult for any of us to identify—nor is their negative effect on others.  And I continue to believe that if we fail to prevent evil when it’s in our power we become complicit through our inaction in causing it to happen.  Certainly our judgment about a behavior can be wrong.  We may be bringing our own negative biases into the mix and pointing out a problem where none exists.  Or the person to whom we point it out may already be aware of it, perhaps even working already to correct it.  But even if we’re wrong or we don’t know they already know, it still seems to me we must speak up.  Many skin lesions that look malignant turn out to be benign as well.  We still biopsy them all to make sure.

The main difference, it seems to me, between pointing out a negative behavior and a potentially malignant skin lesion isn’t that we’re right to interfere in one circumstance and not the other; it’s that alerting a person to a potentially malignant skin lesion implies no judgment of their character.  This makes pointing out negative behaviors riskier to the relationship, but no less important.  Many actions are well known to cause suffering for those who commit them (stealing, lying, and…excessive complaining).  We may risk more in pointing them out but that doesn’t excuse us from doing it if we genuinely care about their best interests (pointing out such flaws from a competitive or malicious place casts an entirely different light on the practice and isn’t the subject here).

Who after all represents the better friend, the one who notes the need to tell a difficult truth but says nothing out of fear of giving offense—rationalizing that it’s better to avoid risking hurt feelings or that it’s none of their business what effect their friend’s negative behavior has on anyone—or the friend who, even if operating under misguided judgment, says not what’s easy but what they think will help, telling us not what we want to hear but what they think we need to?

What kind of friends do you want?  Do you have the courage to listen to unpleasant truths about yourself, setting aside your ego long enough to consider them at least briefly on their merits?  Can you view a painfully (though hopefully gently) honest friend as a true friend?  Mine didn’t.  Though our friendship continued, it changed for us both.  Though he never explicitly said so and I never sensed it, I can’t imagine given his reaction that he felt as comfortable around me or as fond of me as he had before.  And for my part, I no longer felt I could be honest with him; conversations with him started to feel like work (the work of monitoring my statements to make sure they didn’t hurt his feelings).  As a result, my interest in maintaining our friendship waned and eventually we grew apart.  And though it made me sad, it also helped me clarify that the kind of friends I want are the kind who can hear—as well as tell me—the truth.

Next WeekPicking An Expert

62 comments to The Courage To Hear The Truth

  • Joy Corcoran

    I don’t always change my behavior (or my taste in clothes) on the advice of friends, but I always value their opinion and the opportunity to examine myself with a bit of criticism “grating” my ears. For writing and art work, I find compassionate but honest people invaluable. I’m sorry you lost your friend, but I’m glad you came to the conclusion that compassionate honesty is the best policy. Otherwise, you don’t really have a relationship, but something more passive and quite possibly malignant for both.

  • Brian

    This is an interesting and relevant topic for me. I’ve been confronted with this situation recently, when I was struggling with whether to broach the topic of a family member’s morbid obesity. He is killing himself, but by addressing the issue, even in a compassionate way, I risked alienating our relationship, which in turn would have had ripple effects throughout our family.

    After much thought, I made an attempt to broach the issue, and was immediately shut down. I backed off, hoping that I had not caused damage to our relationship, both as friends and family members. It appears as though no damage was done. But two things became clear in my mind. First, I have accepted my powerlessness over his personal health choices. Second, I can sleep better knowing that I at least attempted to address a life threatening illness with someone I dearly love. I think I had the responsibility to do so, and to have done less would have been unloving.

    Brian: A more difficult issue, giving feedback about something the person already knows is a problem. In such circumstances, role modeling the behavior that you think another needs to follow yourself might be more effective.

    Alex

  • Jude Jackson

    I appreciate this post. I have friends (and family members) whose behavior grates on others. The decision to mention the offending behavior to a friend is always a little risky, I think. The thing is, once you tell someone their behavior is driving people nuts, will they change? Can it be so ingrained that they need professional help to modify their actions? I haven’t had much luck when I’ve mentioned the negative actions of others, but it was most interesting to read your prospective. Thank you.

    Jude: Whether or not the person changes is, of course, up to them. Often they don’t. But I don’t feel that excuses true friends from providing compassionate feedback when a person doesn’t realize what negative effects their behavior is having.

    Alex

  • Steven P

    The subject matter of this week’s post I find to be the single most difficult issue that can arise in a friendship. Of course I think you were right to try to broach the subject with your friend but I think your chosen strategy doomed you to failure. You were right not to focus on his behavior but it was counter-productive to focus on your mutual friend’s reaction to his behavior. By taking the approach you took, you instantly raise the suspicion in your friend that he is the subject of off-putting negative gossip. If your reaction to his behavior was as negative as this mutual friend, then you should have stated the issue in terms of how it affects you.

    The approach goes something like “I need to talk to you about an issue I am having that is adversely affecting me. Now the issue revolves around my reaction to the way you present people or issues and it is getting in my way of the friendship that I have with you and greatly value. So would you mind if I went through the issue I am having by listening to me lay it out—of course it will sound a lot like me saying how you are being but really it is how I am perceiving or getting or reacting to you. And once I lay it out you can tell me if I am way off or you can see how the way you are behaving could very likely affect me in a negative way and might even be a take away or an adverse factor when it comes to our ongoing friendship.

    Now if he values the friendship, it no longer all about what he is doing wrong but rather it is about how you are having issues with the friendship because of the way you are finding him.

    Let’s take a completely different but highly illustrative example. Let’s say all of a sudden this friend, who was a non-smoker took up smoking heavily. And then the third party mutual friend complained to you about how the friend was not pleasant to be around because he was like a walking smoke stack. Now let’s say you also smoked frequently. Well then it wouldn’t bother you. But if you didn’t smoke and this was a recent new habit, well you would be more aware of it and might say something. And if you were a reformed smoker (once smoked now not at all) for sure his new habit would annoy you no end. You probably wouldn’t have ever thought to say so and so finds this annoying, you would have laid it out on your own the first time he blew smoke in your face.

    I only think we can speak to a friend honestly about a bad habit when we do so in terms of how it makes us feel or how it affects us personally and then broaden that to say you fear others may feel the same and you wanted to point it out, not because you wanted to be negative but because you valued the friendship and it upset you that this habit might drive friends away.

    Steven

    Steven: You raise an excellent point. I did begin by discussing how I felt but I also wanted him to know many more people than I had the same reaction so that he’d be less likely to imagine it was only my opinion and thus rationalize his behavior wasn’t the cause.

    Alex

  • joanwinnek

    A real conundrum: what to do about a difficult child (or spouse, or self)?

    Joanwinnek: Honest, compassionate feedback is even more urgent in such relationships. If your spouse is overly controlling, for example, and doesn’t see it, truly, how can it be considered compassionate to ignore it and allow him or her to suffer in other areas of his or her life because of it (at the hands of disgruntled co-workers, for example)? Obviously, you want to deliver the message in a way that makes it likely to be received and not discarded, an entirely separate and difficult issue. But how can someone begin to improve themselves if they don’t know how their behavior is being received by others?

    Alex

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  • Amen!

    So often have I tiptoed around topics for fear of upsetting the “delicate” person’s fragile equilibrium; in truth, they were most likely controlling prima donnas who kept their egos intact by the unspoken threat that they would react poorly (become combative, reclusive, etc.) if certain unpleasant truths were spoken.

    I wish my friends to be able to confront the hard questions, and to be able to answer in civil way. Kindness is an important prerequisite to all of the other important qualities (like receptivity), IMHO.

    Lisa: One key in my mind is operating under the assumption that people are not delicate and easily broken. Unpleasant feedback stings, yes, but if honest, we can almost always find value to make out of it.

    Alex

  • Julie

    Well, I see your point but I’m not sure I agree with your methods, not that you asked if anyone agreed, but since you obviously have an appreciation for the truth (as do I) then I will give my thoughts. If you didn’t want feedback then presumably you would not have made allowances for it.

    First of all, you said you decided to tell him using an alternative approach, i.e., make the suggestions and observations more as a statement of their reactions, not his actions if I understand you. I can’t see how that could be done without suggesting, however delicately, that their reactions were perhaps a bit much? Or if not much than what? A little critical? Too nit-picky? Or maybe you didn’t present the others’ reactions other than what they were but that’s hard to comprehend accomplishing that while avoiding his actions. Maybe I’m just obtuse today? Anyway shortly afterward you write that you would rather be told if your actions were having a negative effect and that you would see it more “an indictment of your behavior” rather than the people offended. Which is the exact opposite of what you did with him. Maybe he sensed this about you or intuited it somehow (I don’t know quite the degree of your acquaintance/friendship) and so felt you were being insincere by focusing on the opposite of what you, yourself, would prefer. If you would have preferred it that way (and I think I would as well) then to present it in any other way to him seems to contradict your stated intentions to help. I’m not saying you might have done so purposely (or that you did so at all, I mean, its just my opinion) but subconsciously or in a way you did not recognize or think about.

    The other observation I would make is you compare your telling a friend about a potentially harmful skin lesion as opposed to not warning your friend. You would not be warning your friend about something he was doing wrong, just about a danger that had beset him, so of course he would want to know. In this case, your comparison doesn’t translate because its not a lesion he suffers from of which he might be a victim but of him being in the place of the lesion because he was offending others. The first case represents you warning a victim, the second case represents you in essence warning the perpetrator and so its not apt to be as well-received.

    Also, have you considered it was the US (plural) versus (singular) YOU that was off-putting or put him on the defensive. I myself have a sensitivity, rightly or not, when it appears I face a group opposing me (and who have been discussing me) that automatically triggers my self-defense mechanism. If you wished to spare your friends feelings, you could have had presented your observations not as a representative of THE GROUP but of YOURSELF, thereby avoiding the automatic self-defense response when its one against a crowd.

    Your friend is intelligent, probably, otherwise you’d have nothing in common and no reason to spend time together, so surely he must put two and two together and see that its a group condemnation/criticism. And if it is a group consensus then it might be logical to assume that you were all discussing him and that you had been elected as spokesperson.

    I would have a hard time feeling comfortable after that, I think, I would feel excluded somehow, judged and it would always be that everyone of the group was the plural Other and Me being on the “other side.”

    I remember as a child the humiliation of being last one picked for soccer team. And standing there alone I became fully aware of how awful it is to be One Against Others. Every other person who had gone before had the comfort of being part of the group and it was only me who was last. It didn’t matter if someone was selected second or third from last, the only thing that mattered was being One.

    I think that would bother me the most of all. It seems to me (with my sensitivity which I realize not all may have) it is a guaranteed disastrous setup.

    So if it were my friend I would “bend” the details a bit more (which you admit to having done already with the change of focus on their reaction to him instead of him so you can’t say its because you were committed to 100 percent confrontation with the truth).

    The difference may seem insignificant to someone who is quite self-assured but devastating to someone with self-esteem issues. And perhaps the reason your friend states his case so adamantly (and thus, as you say, off-putting) is because he feels threatened and therefore after voicing his complaint he proceeds to tell others how it offends him so that you might see if from his viewpoint. If that’s the case, that the off-putting part is not the statement but the way he tells it, then maybe the reason he goes on past the point of what the average person would consider reasonable is because he feels an invisibile/subconscious judgment before anyone says a word.

    “I think” when you do such and so that it is a problem to me. I like you but when you do that I find it annoying because (whatever). I can’t say how anyone else feels but maybe there are others who share the same opinion. Anyway I just wanted to say it would be so much better for me if you focused on (whatever) and avoided (whatever).

    That approach might not have gone over any better or it might indeed have made a difference. Like everything else, there are all sorts of possibilities in life. We can’t know all of them obviously. This them/me scenario is one that “registers” with me.

    Julie: Another reader made the same suggestion above. In focusing on the reactions of others, however, I wasn’t suggesting to him his behavior wasn’t the issue—in fact, the exact opposite. Also, I did know him quite well (though obviously not well enough to predict his reaction to my feedback accurately!) and didn’t think he had self-esteem issues. Had I, I wouldn’t have confronted him directly as I did. I genuinely thought he would have a different reaction.

    Alex

  • Julie

    Put another way, as to hearing the truth—your truth may have been different from what truth he heard. You might have been telling him about a way to present himself better and thus open up the lines of communication more so. His truth may have been, “They have all gotten together and criticized me and decided someone needed to talk to me.” If so, I’m not surprised no one in the group felt the same afterward and he drifted away, probably not just from you but from the group because he was separated from it. Yes, he separated himself in a way by his actions but he did not separate himself from the group, but from each of you individually, which is easier to deal with, IMO. The “group think” thing is a hard one.

  • It seems to me you offered your (now former) friend a generous gift. That he didn’t accept it is certainly his choice; something no one can make for him.

    The fact that this caused a rift to occur is unfortunate, perhaps, but also inevitable I would think. And also for the better. This is a form of self-selection which each of us may practice, and demonstrates why we are friends with some people, and not with others.

    Is there any value in being unauthentic friends? Perhaps. I would expect you would still be civil with this person, and probably not hold any animosity towards him (what we would do, is of course, his own choice). But is that a “friend” or just an acquaintance. To me, true friends have the ability to share deep and substantive thoughts. It appears that is no longer possible for you two.

    I have one very good friend who has moved far to the right on the political spectrum, while I have moved further left. To say we disagree on almost all things political would be an understatement. It became so serious, that I had to take that topic off the table in our e-mail exchanges (we currently live in different countries). We can still talk about our lives, families, futures, and neutral topics like running, travel, and investing. But to save our friendship, we no longer discuss politics. In our case, it was worth the effort to make this truce. Nevertheless, we are not as close as we once were. He will be visiting me in a few weeks; I will be very interested to see how that goes, and if our mutual presence gets us somehow closer once again.

    Thanks Alex, for the reflective post.

    Steven: Your thoughts about this topic exactly mirror my own.

    Alex

  • Noreen, FNP

    I’ll tell you the truth. Ready?

    I love your blog. I always find something inspirational to inform my relationships with patients and improve my practice, or even better, to inform my interpersonal relationships and improve myself.

    I am like you: I prefer relationships that are real and honest, even when the honestly is uncomfortable. I do have a few people who will speak to me plainly. It isn’t easy to hear sometimes, but I’m always glad they care enough to make the effort. Likewise, I am glad you care enough to write the blog! Thank you for the time you put into them.

    Noreen: Thank you for taking the time to say so. It means a lot.

    Alex

  • Judi

    “…I’d always considered that we have an obligation to point out our friends’ mistakes….”

    Q. What is one word for “unasked for advice?”
    A. Criticism.

    Alex, this column shocks me. If a friend makes a mistake—that’s MY judgment. Maybe the friend doesn’t see it that way. Everybody has a different perspective. Why should I be so judgmental? I aim for acceptance. Nobody is perfect. And I only speak for myself—not on behalf of a bunch of other so-called friends.

    My belief system is that I’m honest if/when a friend asks for my opinion. Even then, I try to stick to “I” statements: I think, I sense, I feel, etc.

    If not asked, I work toward accepting that my friends are imperfectly human. That I’m powerless over others. That my criticism, my judgment of others, is MY issue to deal with.

    Judi

    Judi: I understand your point. Absolutely, I was offering my opinion—but I believed my opinion had merit (and value to him) as it was shared by many others. I don’t agree that offering my judgment made me judgmental of him. I wasn’t condemning him as a person but trying to point out something to him I thought he needed to know that he clearly didn’t. I was perfectly willing to be accepting of him if he’d said in response to my criticism, “I don’t agree,” or “I’m unwilling to change.” He has many other positive qualities that drew me to him in the first place. And I don’t expect my friends to be perfect. Certainly I personally would have preferred him to be less acerbic, but I was quite willing to continue our friendship anyway. I truly didn’t offer my feedback for my sake but for his. What disrupted our friendship from my side wasn’t his disregard of my feedback but his desire to have a relationship with me in which I needed to treat him as if he were easily breakable.

    Alex

  • Ondrej CR

    Gee! This is an incredibly difficult subject. While I agree with your approach, Alex, there is another thorny question to answer: What makes somebody to prefer living in lies, rather than hearing the truth? What went wrong in his life and/or his upbringing?

    And a follow-up: I’d really hate my children to end up like that ex-friend of yours, but what am I to do to prevent such sad ends?

    Ondrej: I think as parents we have a special responsibility to teach our children behaviors that lead them to joy rather than pain. And even more importantly, to do whatever we can to instill in them strength: the strength to withstand the trauma life will inflict on them and the strength to embrace painful feedback, to ask themselves first if it has merit, and to act to change themselves if they think it does. Certainly, a lot of feedback we receive, even in the spirit of compassion, is wrong or unhelpful. But we can always then discard it. But if we’re too fragile to hear it, we must fight to become stronger.

    Alex

  • Mary Dylan

    I was just talking about this with friends yesterday; it seems there are the people who admit to their mistakes and can apologize and those who deny, diminish, and reject the critical reactions of others to their errors. You put it perfectly at the end: it becomes too much work to edit your own reactions to the latter type of people. In their need for only positive feedback, they seem delusional and paranoid at the same time, hypersensitive about their own feelings and hyper-insensitive about everyone else.

  • Chris

    Lifelong learner status: IF I commit to being a lifelong learner, I will be ready to learn, revise my thinking (as in your recent blog post about changing one’s mind), and accept constructive criticism.

    And if criticism leads to change, then we probably all must admit to being unnerved by change to some degree.

    I have chosen to learn a new skill set every couple of years. Right now, it is martial arts. In my younger years, I might have been a very good martialist. But now, as an older person, I am a “slow learner.” I find I must accept lots of criticism. I haven’t been good at accepting criticism in younger years, but I am now learning that lesson. It is about time . . .

    Perhaps the friend who could not hear the truth will take steps, as he grows older, to accept criticism as constructive, in the service of lifelong learning.

    Learning about oneself may be the most important of all the lifelong learning categories!

    Chris: I also think to myself that you never know what future experiences a person may have that might one day crystallize the painful feedback you once gave them. I still have hope my friend will reflect upon my feedback and one day turn some value out of it. My hope, of course, wasn’t to hurt his feelings (though I knew, of course, I risked that) but to encourage him to develop himself.

    Alex

  • Paul

    You might say that relationships are subject to causes and conditions beyond our control. The friend’s personality, his habits of mind, his capacity to listen, his inflated self-absorption, etc. were all in play.

    I think we all bring habits to relationships that limit them in some way, or at certain times, and our task is primarily to listen and observe. . . You have developed that capacity; your friend apparently had not.

    Is it wise to say something to one whose mind is closed? Or is it wise to remain silent? We may not know for sure until we try through dialogue.

    I agree with you that openness—an open mind—is preferable in friendship and intimate relationships. And the degree of openness possible will shape the quality of that friendship.

    Paul: I think your question, “Is it wise to say something to one whose mind is closed?” is the key for me. That was exactly what I contemplated before speaking out. And though part of me suspected things would turn out as they did ( suspecting as I did that his mind would be closed), I also recognized that minds don’t necessarily remain closed forever and to remain silent because of that worry wouldn’t have been compassionate (though certainly it could be argued the way I spoke out could have been better). I could easily have left well enough alone (believe me, I dislike confrontation as much as the next person), but I didn’t think anyone else would have the courage to say anything to him and I thought it needed to be said.

    Alex

  • This post leaves me wondering a few things:

    What did you like about this person, that made him your friend? What did other people like about him? He doesn’t sound like very good company, at least at the time you’re speaking of.

    What has become of him? Did your mutual friends remain friends with him? Are his friendships deep or superficial?

    And to me, the most important question: I believe your intentions were sincere and well-meant; in the event, it turned out to be a mistake; so—failed experience, what did you learn?

    And here you say it, “And though it made me sad, it also helped me clarify that the kind of friends I want are the kind who can hear—as well as tell me—the truth.”

    That’s something very important that you learned about yourself and your relationships.

    I always find your posts valuable, because you expose your process (and yourself) so honestly. It encourages me to do the same for myself.

    Judith: What I liked (and still like about him): his intelligence, sincerity, commitment, and goodness. We are still friendly (meaning, when we see each other, we talk freely) but no longer social. I don’t know, but suspect, a number of our mutual friends interact in the same way.

    Alex

  • Cliff

    I seem to have the habit of doing this; pointing out flawed behavior, and offering suggestions for modifying it.

    I have learned to think about how to approach complex issues before speaking and I seek to find the least offensive way to approach the subject. Relationship Aikido, if you will…

    Anyway, in my observation, such advice usually falls on deaf ears. But, maybe one or two percent of the time it is listened to. I’ve witnessed two individuals radically change their lives because of the tiny spark of insight I facilitated. One young man told me as much when I ran into him this summer—I hadn’t seen him for ten years.

    I offer this for the 1-2% of people out there who may find it useful fodder.

    Alex, thanks for doing such a great public service with your blog.

    Cliff

    Cliff: You may be right about the small percentage of folks who are able to listen, absorb, and make good use out of such painful feedback. But I’ve also had friends who’ve said to me about a consistent mistake they’ve made over the years, “If you knew, why didn’t you ever tell me?” The reaction you get really does largely (though obviously not entirely) depend on the manner and spirit in which the message is delivered.

    Alex

  • Celeste

    I think the only way to do it is to stick to your own negative feelings about the interpersonal problem with the friend in question. I think any time you tell somebody that “lots of us feel this way, too,” he will naturally become defensive because he feels ganged up on. If you leave it at strictly your own feelings, then he is free to evaluate it as being true (he needs to face it) or false (you’re the problem, not him). I believe that if he accepts what you said, he will naturally conclude that maybe it’s been an issue in other relationships and work to change his behavior in those, perhaps even making amends for past transgressions. I think this is the desired outcome but being a spokesman for a group (who may not all even be interested in intervention) is not the best way to do it.

    Celeste: You make a good point. On the other hand, an important counterpoint can be found in the staging of interventions for alcoholics. Though far from perfectly analogous to the situation with my friend, when an alcoholic is confronted about the harms their drinking is causing by close friends and family who are assembled to deliver the same message at once, denial that such a problem exists is far more likely to crumble.

    Alex

  • Celeste

    I agree about the positive effects of an intervention for a substance abuser, Alex. I suppose that one person taking the initiative to be a spokesman for a group would be all right IF he was certain that everybody else was behind the confrontation. In general I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to insert myself into somebody’s relationship with another person. This is why I like the format of sticking with one on one or else the group intervention, rather than the spokesman approach.

    Celeste: I can’t argue with you. I remain to this day unsure if my bringing up our mutual friends’ reactions was wise or not.

    Alex

  • Bick

    Alex, excellent post as always.

    I am heartsick that a friend needs an intervention regarding her addictions. I so do not want to confront her, but I certainly do want her to know that her choices and her behavior are over the line. Her husband has to know but chooses to be at work more and more. Celeste’s post and your response have convinced me to investigate “staging an intervention.”

    Bick: Best of luck. Very hard. Very important.

    Alex

  • Helen

    Doesn’t this post relate to blind spots that all of us have about our own personalities? In observing/discussing other people, it’s easy to notice glaring blind spots in their behavior—things that they say and do and obsess about. But how hard would it be to have someone point the blind spot out, even with the best of intentions? By it’s very nature, a blind spot might seem unbelievable or we might dismiss it out of hand. If it hit uncomfortably close to a suppressed truth, I can imagine being embarrassed or angered. At this point in my life, I would be interested to know what my family and friends think my blind spot(s) is(are). I do think I would have to take a good, deep breath to hear such a difficult truth. Having said that, I think in this particular situation, Alex, you did what you should have.

    Helen: It’s incredibly difficult and painful to hear about our blind spots. But I’ve found when I’ve finally gotten myself into a place where I can, the benefit that’s resulted has been enormous. This is, in fact, the foundation of the practice of Nichiren Buddhism: limitless self-improvement.

    Alex

  • “..if we fail to prevent evil when it’s in our power we become complicit through our inaction in causing it to happen.”

    This is true for a lot of things, but also true is your desire to help your friend become aware of a situation he may wish to correct. He wasn’t, which also may have enlightened you to an even deeper insensitivity in your friend than you knew.

    But you couldn’t have known if you didn’t bring it up with him. If he would let this affect your friendship, then this is a friendship you can do without. (Of course it may also depend on HOW you brought it up to him.

  • Giselle Massi

    Alex,

    I love the set up essay, with all the complexity and intimacy, and I love reading such bold and thoughtful responses.

    Here’s a link to an essay I wrote a few years ago titled RADICAL DISHONESTY that is relevant. In it I mention my own criteria for navigating these delicate dances … in case anyone is interested:

    http://gisellemassi.com/columns/radical-dishonesty

    Alex, the point you made “focusing not on his behavior but on our mutual friends’ reactions to his behavior” and him not wanting to hear what you had to say about the mutual friends reactions, can be partially understood from a traditional Jewish teaching. You may already know this one, but some of your readers may not and it is worth repeating: If it was perceived as “gossip” to him, and if he was an observant Jew, he may have been taught to shut his ears to your gossip, to shut it down and/or walk away from the message you were wanting to relay. Wonder if this man was raised with that traditional Jewish teaching… it’s a great one, and so is this essay topic!

    Giselle
    http://www.gisellemassi.com

  • rdp

    Well, as the contrarian in most of these social situation issues, I have to reject the premise “my opinion had merit (and value to him) as it was shared by many others.”

    To me, this is usually a red flag indicating subtle or not so subtle social coercion. What I see in many friend groups is a tendency to go for their own comfort at the expense of truth. Anyone who bucks the trend is marginalized. The group has no incentive to do some self-examination because “everybody” feels the same way.

    Many—if not most—of humanity’s atrocious acts are committed when “everybody” thinks they are necessary or goes along. Rather than training the spotlight on the intelligent, sincere, committed, good friend’s behavior that discomfited people, why not encourage the group to ask itself “What are we missing?” It’s a lot harder, isn’t it? My experience suggests that merely broaching this subject will land you near the margins as well.

    The lesson of history (think about Socrates) is do not tell the truth to the group or you will be silenced. Shouldn’t we be working on that issue rather than trying to “help” an individual make himself more palatable to others’ sensibilities?

    rdp: Your point is well taken—except in my judgment, in this case, the wisdom of the crowd was correct. I didn’t judge his behavior to be negative because of the coinciding views of our mutual friends. That they shared my judgment only suggested that my reaction wasn’t less due to my biases than to his behavior. Certainly, in such cases, the crowd can be wrong. Sometimes the solitary person’s views—even when shared by few others around them (for example, believing slavery to be wrong in the pre-Civil War South)—are the correct ones (just, possibly, ahead of their time). However, when it comes to behavior, when multiple people have the same reaction, in general the problem lies with the behavior, not the people (I’m thinking, again, of a drug addiction, for example). And if my friend had said, “I think being this way is the right way to be,” I would, in fact, have accepted that as his personal choice, recognizing that my reaction (and our mutual friends’ reactions) were simply that—our reactions. For me, again, the critical issue was he didn’t have accurate knowledge of how he his behavior was being perceived.

    Alex

  • rdp

    In this case the wisdom of the crowd was correct—why? I don’t see what ground you stand on to make this claim, Alex, except group feelings. In other words, you seem to justify group norms on the grounds they are the group norms.

    I have been a very close observer of some of these scenarios playing out in social circles and my sense is that behavior is not the real issue. The real issue is people not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Of course I cannot know for a fact what went on in the case you present, but you have told us this fellow is intelligent, sincere, committed, and good. In your introduction, you say you “thought most of the time the points he made were valid but that the way he expressed them was off-putting.” If that were the real issue, that he made valid points that others ignored because of his style, then why wouldn’t you have spoken up in defense of what he was saying instead of criticizing his lack of finesse? You never tell us what behavior of his was so offensive.

    It seems to me that had you joined in support of whatever point he was making, but in your own mellower, more considered style, you would have accomplished at least two positive outcomes. 1) You would have given this fellow some validation which, because of his abrasive style, he probably rarely receives and which might even softened him a bit; and 2) you would be sending a message to the group that truth is sometimes—maybe even often—found in unpleasant places.

    I think I understand you went about this thinking he needed information he didn’t have, but in the process, to my mind, you simply reinforced a problematic imbalance of power. If we don’t examine ourselves first—especially when group opinion is behind us—we risk reinforcing people’s natural tendencies to accept group norms unquestioningly. I agree that behavior is important—just ask my family!!—but given the choice between someone’s being, on the one side, intelligent, sincere, committed, and good, and on the other, inoffensive, I think I would give the nod to the abrasive fellow. Besides, how do you know whether the way you all act makes HIM feel really uncomfortable/alienated/upset even if he is unable to articulate that fact?

  • Sha

    Hi Alex ;)

    As I’ve stated the few times I’ve commented, your ability to reach people and connect is amazing. This one, as with so many of your writings, was so timely and relevant for me personally.

    I was on the receiving end of being told some pretty harsh truths. In the moment, I was heartbroken, hurt, I felt crushed, and in my mind was entirely defensive. These “truths” were not delivered with finesse, but straightforwardly. It took me less than a day to process, accept and see the realities of what was said to me. The reason I was able to see past my defenses, and get past the hurt I felt? Because I care enough and value the person that cared enough for Me to be Real as opposed to catering to my known ability to become overly emotional. Although hard to hear, knowing the intent wasn’t to criticize or hurt, but said out of genuine love and care (and admittedly frustration) made it easier to digest. I guess in these situations, to come out the other side with a truly positive impact, would require a perfect storm. The person delivering must be doing it for the right reasons and good intentions. And the recipient has to be open enough, to see past the delivery, and hear the message. In my case, I respect the person, care about their views and feelings, as well as our mutual investment in each other.

    Thanks again, Alex—for being a very positive part of my life.

    And p.s. I try to remember my ripple effect, every single day!

    ;)

    Sha: I’m so glad to hear it!

    Alex

  • Lee

    I think there comes a time in a friendship or relationship that you can no longer be a witness to something and not speak up. It can cause you actual pain to know that so many of his friends are noticing something to such a degree that they are beginning to speak of it to each other. This is the first step in a process of “do you feel this way as well” which then becomes… “no, I’m not surprised you have eased away from constant contact with this person” because the group is aware of his “smooth friendship violation” behaviors. The hand you stuck out in hope and empathy was one last effort to help him get on board again where he would be most certainly welcomed back IF he would refocus his negativity into something more mellow. Communication is messy. Perfect communication is impossible. Being smarter about whether an action is wise coming after the action is taken is a course in regret and revision. Your heart was in the right place. You did unto him what you would like done unto yourself. In a real sense, somewhere under your level of consciousness, the friendship WAS already in trouble, whether you spoke up or not, because the behavior you describe was chipping away at your bond. The viewpoints of others served as a checks and balances sort of event, but I’m sensing that you probably couldn’t take the poor sap twisting in the social wind anymore without an attempt to cut him down. I’m thinking you had courage, empathy…and a deep friendship can take a rocky attempt at course correction. This one had morphed into more than what you both could deal with. That’s my take on it.

  • Sid

    Alex, count me among those who is shocked at your post, and further shocked by many of your replies to other commenters who have pointed out you did something wrong, and thoughtlessly cruel.

    You keep standing on your intentions, how you meant well, meant to help your friend, meant only the best for him. If acting with with right intention leads to a bad result, that brings into question whether your understanding was right.

    I am disappointed that you condemn your friend for not accepting feedback as you do, while here not accepting the feedback that so many have offered you. There are abundant flatterers here to tell you you were right, and were justified. Few there are to softly say, no, you did wrong. Those are the ones you can learn from, if you are as open to that gift as you just bragged you are.

    Sid: So then are we not to offer feedback to friends to point out what we think are their mistakes, but let them continue on making them even when we foresee disaster? Certainly we may be wrong in making such dire predictions, but all we have is our own judgment and good intentions. I acknowledge that the feedback I gave him was painful for him to hear. But he recovered. Most people are far more resilient than we give them credit for. And I don’t know the ultimate result of any intervention I make, ever. I only have the power to intend good ones. Should I therefore stop giving difficult advice to patients as well when it risks hurting their feelings? And though the result wasn’t positive initially, who’s to say when that feedback may one day penetrate and help him improve himself in some way? I don’t condemn him for not accepting my feedback, but I did find myself less interested in maintaining a friendship with someone who prefers his friends to support his weaknesses. It’s not that I made comments about everything about him I found objectionable, or ever intended to do so, or do so regularly with my other friends. It was one specific issue I thought he needed to hear about. I considered carefully what might happen, checked my motivation, and proceeded with great trepidation. And I do hear the feedback I’m getting in this forum. I don’t especially like the idea that I might have been cruel to him, but neither would I have felt good about remaining silent when I had the power to potentially do some good. I understand many here feel it wasn’t my place and that my technique was ill-considered, and I agree my technique could have been better. I agree I could have left well enough alone. But that’s not the kind of friend I want to be. Or have.

    Alex

  • Audrey from MA

    I have a couple of questions, Alex. Is your friend also a Nichiren Buddhist? Are those who strive for limitless self-improvement more open to criticism by others?
    Thanks,
    J.A.

    J.A.: No, my friend was not a Nichiren Buddhist. And, yes, I think those who actively strive for self-improvement are more open to constructive criticism from others. That’s definitely the bias I bring to the table and undoubtedly had an enormous influence on my decision to speak out.

    Alex

  • Sid

    Alex, you write, “So then are we not to offer feedback to friends to point out what we think are their mistakes, but let them continue on making them even when we foresee disaster?”

    Sometimes, yes. Sometimes that’s EXACTLY what we must do. Sometimes we must bear witness as our friends do things we don’t like or don’t approve of, and keep our tongue still all the while.

    Alex, an old parable for you: Once there was a lepidopterist who found a chrysalis and brought it home so that he might observe the new butterfly emerge. The day came and he saw the little creature begin to writhe and struggle against its cocoon. He so empathized with its plight, that he was moved to take up a scalpel and very carefully he slice away the chrysalis. Wet and bedraggled, the new butterfly walked free of its chrysalis, and climbed a branch to dry in the sun. Alas, its wings never flattened; they dried as crumpled as they had been when it emerged. Turns out that it’s the struggle to emerge that causes a butterfly’s heart to beat hard enough to engorge its wings with blood. Without the struggle, their wings never unfurl and they never fly.

    You say, “But he recovered. Most people are far more resilient than we give them credit for.” How profoundly irrelevant. Your victim’s resilience exonerates you from wronging him in the first place? What?

    Let us be clear about the nature of the wrongs you did—not all of which are to him.

    First and foremost, by your cowardly invocation of unspecified others supporting your point, you gave him cause for paranoia. You left him wondering whom among his friends had been talking ill of him behind his back. You left him wondering what else was being said.

    It would have been bad enough had you said to him, “You know, Tom and Jerry and Sally and Mary all agree with me about this.” But, congratulations, you left him equally anxious about where he stood with Martha and Betsy and Bob and John.

    He “recovered” did he? Your “Lurkers Support Me In Email” argument (google it) in a small (or not so small) way alienated him from everyone in your common social crowd. You poisoned his imagination with unsourced hostility. You dropped a wasp in his ear.

    Did you ask Tom or Jerry or Sally or Mary if you could speak for them? Did you ever say, “Hey, Tom, I’m going to go have a chat with Tim about how off-putting he’s being. Would you mind if I told him you too find what he does alienating?” Or did you just elect yourself speaker for Tom and everyone in the entire social group?

    Speaking from the point of view Mary, I didn’t ask you to correct my friend for me, and I didn’t authorize you to tell him that I have a problem with him. If I decide I have a problem with him, I will take it to him. If I need your assistance, I’ll let you know. Most certainly I didn’t authorize you to meddle in my relationship with my friend. I didn’t agree that you could make him wonder if he really was welcome if I invited him to a party after work.

    Alex, I don’t care that you “didn’t condemn him” (no, you shamed him), or that you didn’t “make comments” about “everything” you “found objectionable” (no, you took it upon yourself to correct him in one thing), or that you didn’t gossip about him regularly with your friends (once was enough), or that you “considered carefully what might happen” (you were wrong, and are now being told how you’re wrong so you don’t have to be wrong that way in the future).

    You took it upon yourself to learn him a lesson. He didn’t chose you as his sensei. He never agreed to take correction from you. And before you start up with that “Well I would take correction from him!” nonsense again, allow me to point out that I’ll be “borrowing” your car, thank you, and because I totally am willing to lend you mine, that shouldn’t be a problem.

    You “checked your motivation”? Yet, here you are, however many months or years later, still telling this morality play, in which you’re the tragic martyred hero. I assume you know the Buddhist parable that ends, “I put her down two miles ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

    In writing this piece, you are trying to sell us on the self-justifying narrative you have constructed. You caused your friend distress, and you have a thousand and one high-minded reasons why you were entitled to do so and virtuous to do so and should be congratulated to do so and couldn’t help but do so. I’m not buying it, and, obviously, neither are you, which is why you are trying so hard to sell it to someone, anyone. You haven’t been able to let go of this, and you’re still carrying your wounded friend miles and miles later.

    You hurt your friend. Did you ever apologize to him for it? Or did you just get defensive in your guilt about how your high-minded intervention turned out, and multiply the reasons you were right and he was wrong in the echo chamber of your mind, and withdraw from him because of your shame?

    When you say, “neither would I have felt good about remaining silent when I had the power to potentially do some good,” you admit something more true than you know. You saw yourself having power. So you used it. You told yourself that the potential good outcome was worth it.

    That’s an ends justifies the means argument. Congratulations, you just learned something important about yourself today.

  • Steven P

    I have commented once, in a somewhat critical manner, on your action, but now having read the comments that have followed, I want to state that I have also been on the receiving end of criticism of my behavior from friends. Those interactions fall into one of 3 groups.

    1.The criticism was correct and delivered in a way that was neither unfair or harsh. Out of the interaction I sought to make changes and in fact did eventually succeed in having those changes become permanent and beneficial to me. That it was also appreciated by my critic was never brought up to my face I greatly appreciated. It was enough that the friendship continued and grew was evidence enough.

    2. The criticism was delivered in a way that was neither unfair or harsh but I did not agree with the substance of the criticism. In these cases I asked for time to consider what had been said and then replied that I did not fully agree with their issue with me but I understood that they were experiencing something difficult about me and I appreciated they told me about their issue. I stated I would continue to look at it but they should not have an expectation that I was going to make significant changes. In these cases, sometimes the friendships continued and have grown even stronger over the years and in a few cases the friendships faded but without any animosity on my part and I believe on the other persons part either.

    3. The criticism was in my opinion either incorrect or its full substance unclear and was delivered in a way that I found either hurtful or harsh. neither unfair or harsh. In all these cases, the criticism had clearly been discussed among friends before being discussed with me. It was the gathering of agreement that seemed to legitimize the criticism in the mind of my critic and which definitely felt to be personally humiliating to me. The friendship in these few cases almost always died an almost immediate death.

    I point out these examples from the point of view of the receiver because I did appreciate being criticized by someone I valued because it gave me a chance to make a correction or discuss with them why the criticism may be more about their issue rather than my behavior. In all these cases the friendships continued and thrived, some of them for 25 years some for as long as 40. I am glad the issues were raised. And where the discussion was unfair and destructive of the friendship, I still came to appreciate (maybe not at the moment of delivery) it occurring. I got to let go of relationships that were probably not in my best interests and in most cases I forgave what had happen and let it go. And in one case, 25 years after a horrible attack on who I was, my ex-friend showed up in my life one day and asked to be forgiven. And I forgave him and we have again become friends.

    So I don’t think it is wrong to have these critical conversations with friends. BUT YOU MUST BE CLEAR THAT IT IS SOMETHING THAT THEY ARE DOING THAT YOU CANNOT ACCEPT whether it is disagreeable to you or counter to their own self-interest. But it must be expressed as your own findings, your own point of view. It is your relationship with them and anyone other than you and they know has no place in the conversation. And the only exception to that rule, in my personal opinion and self imposed rules for interaction, is when someone is doing something that is endangering their physical well-being, where the participation of a group is necessary to help them see that they must seek help. But trying to legitimize your point of view by pointing out others who agree with you is a recipe for making a friend defensive and having them reject your criticism.

    SP

  • thquah

    There are good friends and bad friends. Good friends are the one’s who tell us about our shortcomings. So if someone tells us about our shortcomings then he/she is considered a good friend.

    “It is important to be wise. Having people point out your shortcomings and help you weed out your bad habits at the root is, in the long run, a great help to you. If the roots of those bad habits remain, they will gradually begin to affect your life more and more adversely, moving you in a harmful destructive direction.”—Daisaku Ikeda.

  • Rose

    Eventually you made the correct choice. Leaving someone for good is goodness in itself. There are people like your ex-friend who cannot hear a single word going against them; such people are actually disturbed or anxious about something and are not willing to face it and unless they don’t open up their behavior remains unchanged.

    How Good Are Your People Skills?

    This test finds out how well you interact with others:

    http://www.3smartcubes.com/pages/tests/peopleskills/peopleskills_instructions.asp

  • I for one am so tired of doing the dance around fractured and often manipulative people. We are all fractured in our way, and ISTM the goal of being here is to heal. You, Alex, are a healer. You have kindly provided a forum so that we as readers may learn. Thank you.

    Spewing bile is the coin in trade of internet forums. Your cadre is a bit more civil, but I don’t buy the argument that you shouldn’t have spoken to your friend. The only lesson is in recognizing his fragility/resistance. Nicholson’s character said, “You can’t handle the truth!” Some cannot, but I say, keep speaking it anyway. With right civility, of course.

  • Mark

    “And I continue to believe that if we fail to prevent evil when it’s in our power we become complicit through our inaction in causing it to happen. Certainly our judgment about a behavior can be wrong.”

    Certainly indeed.

    The older I get the more I believe that a lot of the strife and wars in the world are caused by persons acting against what they perceive to be evil. Anders Behring Breivik in Norway thought he was acting against evil. The architects and perpetrators of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11/01 claimed to be acting against the evil of the West. We are still fighting a war against the “evil” terrorists.

    Buddhists are exhorted to save others of suffering. Christians sincerely believe they are eliminating evil when they try to bring me to Jesus. Some extreme practitioners of other religions think it would be better to kill both the Buddhist and the Christian.

    The world would be a much better place if we minded our own business 99.46% of the time. The other 0.54% is probably pure evil and has to be confronted.

    If I have a melanoma on my arm, please tell me. If you don’t like my way of thinking or acting or my religion, well…I am not so sure you should do or say anything.

  • Michelle

    I am struggling with what to do about a work-friend. A small group of us play cards at lunch once or twice a week. When this friend has bad cards, she complains so vociferously that it is hard to enjoy playing, much less winning. When another player has good cards, but sympathizes with her run of bad luck, she will frequently exclaim “F*** off, (name of friend)!” (ha ha big joke). Recently she acknowledged she was being a pill, adding “But that’s part of my charm.” (crickets chirping, no one voiced agreement with that).

    I am dead certain this person will reject any honest feedback from me. It feels like my only alternative to indigestion every time she happens to be unlucky is to drop out of the group—which will raise comment. But I’m considering hanging in for a few more weeks, trying to catch her on a day when she has bad cards AND a good attitude and then flood her with positive reinforcement. I’m sure many will criticize this as arrogant manipulation, but what do you think?

    Michelle: A very challenging situation. As many commenters have noted here, the manner in which you confront your friend is key. I agree that my strategy of mentioning how others felt to my friend was ill-considered and that you might instead think about approaching this as your problem—meaning that when she voices her irritation (and I wouldn’t call it complaining) it makes you feel uncomfortable and detracts from your enjoyment of the game. Good luck!

    Alex

  • shuiguo

    I don’t know the specific behaviors of your friend. Assuming that he’s simply brash but not a manipulative type….

    From another perspective, perhaps your friend should be viewed more as an honest teacher, where he allows people interacting with him to learn that “being nice is not always what’s good for us.”

    Lack of finesse could also be more enlightening, less manipulative. Negative emotions that ensue with his behavior could be a reflection of our own insecurity and propel us towards re-examining our ingrained assumptions. Maybe we should ask, why should I feel offended, uncomfortable, or aversive? Is my own reaction learned? How? Should it be unlearned? Would this learned reaction bring benefit to me and sentient beings?

  • Paul

    You may wish to consider the “advice” embedded in this well known poem:

    Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House

    The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
    He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
    that he barks every time they leave the house.
    They must switch him on on their way out.

    The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
    I close all the windows in the house
    and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
    but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
    barking, barking, barking,

    and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
    his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
    had included a part for barking dog.

    When the record finally ends he is still barking,
    sitting there in the oboe section barking,
    his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
    entreating him with his baton

    while the other musicians listen in respectful
    silence to the famous barking dog solo,
    that endless coda that first established
    Beethoven as an innovative genius.

    Billy Collins

  • Theresa

    Alex,
    Thank you for sharing your story.

    There is a feeling of comfort to know other people share the similar issues.

    We speak, and do, what is necessary at that time. Our perception at that moment different than another’s. Communication should not feel like confrontation…sometimes it does. Your friend is processing/integrating your words at his own pace.

    Bless you for sharing your (and other friends) view with this special friend.

    My sister and I have a similar situation, with her twin…often times acts as an energy vampire. Our version of being compassionate and avoidance (mostly for our own sake). Is a lot of redundant and exhausting work! Perhaps sending White Light to all is less exhausting and more beneficial. Yes?

  • Heather

    Even the sages are divided on this issue!

    It is one of the severest tests of friendship to tell your friend his faults. So to love a man that you cannot bear to see a stain upon him, and to speak painful truth through loving words, that is friendship.
    —Henry Ward Beecher

    I am speaking now of the highest duty we owe our friends, the noblest, the most sacred—that of keeping their own nobleness, goodness, pure and incorrupt. . . . If we let our friend become cold and selfish and exacting without a remonstrance, we are no true lover, no true friend.
    —Harriet Beecher Stowe

    Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.
    —George Eliot

    Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.
    —Benjamin Franklin

    My friend is he who will tell me my faults in private.
    —Solomon Ibn Gabirol

    Don’t flatter yourself that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. The nearer you come into relation with a person, the more necessary do tact and courtesy become.
    —Oliver Wendell Holmes

    Enjoy your writing Alex! Your introspection inspires my own, as always.

    Heather

  • “One key in my mind is operating under the assumption that people are not delicate and easily broken. Unpleasant feedback stings, yes, but if honest, we can almost always find value to make out of it.”

    I do believe people are resilient, but I also believe there are manipulators who would twist our sincere efforts into daggers against them.

    As resilient as people are, so are they resistant to change. One must be willing to be honest, and open to change, in order for criticism to be rendered constructive, IMO. I like honesty, but I find not all do.

  • Julie

    First of all, Alex, I’m sorry if my comments offended you. I do like your discussions from the ones I’ve seen.

    Whenever I try to weigh something in my mind I can get too object-oriented and forget how my thoughts might be perceived by someone else. I try to stay detached from the subject if its one someone else brought up so that I can figure it without emotional ties and so maybe my comments sounded a bit dry/hyper-critical. I didn’t say what I did to be offensive so I hope you won’t hold it against me.

    I do enjoy your blog/column and it is nice of you to allow public discussion. I try not to read what anyone before me has said so that my ideas will not be something I temporarily picked up from a new acquaintance. Anyway I appreciate your candor and your obviously generous nature.

    Thumbs up is my vote.

    Julie: No worries. You clearly felt strongly about your comment but I didn’t feel it was in any way offensive or disrespectful. I was well aware this is a controversial topic and that many would feel my actions inappropriate. Reasonable people can of course disagree. Thanks for contributing to the conversation and for taking the time to check in this way.

    Alex

  • Betsy

    Sid,

    I love what you wrote and that’s why I am commenting here. Agreed, start to finish.

  • alan

    Beautifully written piece with which I mostly agree. One caveat might be for those who look so intently for the negative things in a person that they give little attention to the positive attributes that this person may have. This tendency can be especially dangerous in a marriage relationship or with others in which you share a household. If your “constructive” criticism is taken to an extreme it can become more like a person who is impossible to please.

  • Still afraid of criticism

    On the flip side, I find it still (at the age of 40) very difficult to be open to honest feedback/criticism from others.

    On the one hand, I do really want feedback as it is helpful and informative and can help me change and be happier in the long run.

    In the short run though, hearing something I perceive as negative about me hurts so much. I take it in, deep, and kick myself hard for a good long while. This makes being open to feedback and change less likely for me.

    Thoughts on hearing “negative feedback” about one’s self and using it for good without feeling terrible about one’s self?

  • Chris

    To Still afraid of criticism:

    Boy-oh-boy, can I identify with what you say! I am in my 60s and have never been any good at accepting criticism. Wounded, yes! Pity-party, yes! Plummeting self-esteem (for a time afterwards), yes!

    But here is what I have discovered just recently. I have become interested in martial arts in the last few years. I spent 4-plus years at a school where I didn’t get much feedback nor criticism of my technique. I am at a different do-jang now, where I am getting a lot of feedback/correction of sloppy technique. I needed to go back to basics in order to correct my technique. I regard myself as an earnest athlete who needs the coach/trainer/master to tell me how to be more attentive to detail, how to refine, etc. I finally see myself improving. I am feeling very grateful for the correction, and feeling sad that for whatever reason, I was not corrected at the other school. I NEED to get better and move on in my practice. I will do whatever it takes, which includes accepting criticism.

    When you have your eye on the prize, the goal of improving and moving on and aiming at excellence, you will accept the criticism, even if there is an initial bit of sting. IMO.

  • Steven Crisp

    @Still afraid of criticism:

    My thought would be that if the negative feedback is valid in your eyes, then you should consider it as a gift. Perhaps your friend illuminated a blind spot for you. Now you have awareness, and can choose to take action if you wish.

    If you don’t agree with the negative criticism, after giving it consideration, then by all means just ignore it. Your friend/boss/colleague doesn’t have the gift of perfect insight.

    The bottom line is, you have the ability to accept or reject the feedback. But if you know it is valid, then you also have the choice to do something about it.

    One more thing—this can work the other way too. Sometimes we are our own worst critics, and we believe we have a great fault that must be fixed. And yet, through feedback from others, we may find they do not see this as a fault at all. Indeed, I’ve had the experience that others have seen it as a strength! It is amazing how inaccurate the picture may be that we form of ourselves.

    Again, this is the value of welcoming heartfelt feedback, and making your own choices about what to work on.

    S—

  • Still afraid,

    Lose your ego, and you will then see the thing that needs tweaking is a behavior of your social self, a constructed entity. The criticism will not touch YOU as you are independent

  • The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

    ~Norman Vincent Peale

  • Samantha

    Hi Alex,
    I just came across this blog tonight and of course it is exactly appropriate to my situation. I have read every comment made here and I can see many points on both sides of the fence that are helpful. I think the thing that is most important, and I come from the side which has had opinions and judgements from a long-time friend with regards to things going on in my life that she has angry feelings about. In this case, and I have a few others who “think” the same way, however they are so involved on a low level, politically correct, socially accepting level, that I have been toying for days now whether to reply. This person doesn’t realize that I am aware of these opinions, and have had a lot of emotional turmoil already for the longest time; however, I know in myself I have done things that she sees as wrong, for reasons she has no idea about, instead the “attack,” (for that is what it was, written in anger and with judgement, even admitting she is judging me, telling me her own opinions and adamant that they are correct), was just her thoughts and how she views the situation. Its kind of like a robbing Peter to pay Paul situation; I chose to follow a path that I knew I had to, and it is constantly a difficult path, with a lot of rocky bits; however, what she doesn’t understand due to her lack of perception and knowledge of any of my own personal experiences and all I’ve been through, is that I have been healing and learning so many lessons and have completely changed, and that instead of my “abandoning” my responsibilities, I have been “fixing” myself because the “me” I was before was not someone I enjoyed being. I still have my down times, however, now, because I took a “time out,” and because I have been thrown so many challenges, I have grown, centered and am like a sponge, and my intuition has become so strong, that I realize that she is still stuck in her own ruts and of course her own thoughts and problems are important to her. I can see a lot of how she is, is simply because she has her own demons to fight, and that she doesn’t see that the opinions and perceptions she has are simply learned thoughts from her own upbringing, and what is “socially accepted.” Whereas I see differently, as well as feel she fails to see her own contribution to any failure in our friendship. These are the things that I have been going over and over, whether I should bring them up, because to me, it is not fair to judge someone when you have not walked in their shoes, and also, people in glass houses, etc. etc, so I feel it is my duty to inform her of how she affected me for a long time, which added to my initial problems, in the hope that it may wake her up to dealing with her own crap and not constantly involving herself in others lives with biased opinions with no idea of what is true. Looking outside isn’t the way to happiness; it is inside, and all of this started because I have been trying to help her be more positive. She is always very down and negative, expressing it to others, which I feel is not beneficial to the Earth. I also believe that she has had influence over some very special people in my life, as have others, and I am sick of other peoples’ negativity and personal thoughts causing others to judge as she does. This is why I feel it should be said, because sometimes people need to hear the truth and not meddle in what they don’t know anything about. For those who have read my waffle, thanks, and thanks, Alex, for this post. It was very helpful, love and light,

    Samantha :-)

  • :-)

    It’s not about courage or not, but that when someone is fixated on being honest and talking about issues that pick another person apart it just gets draining and boring. I also question if the person that is doing the talking is doing it to point out faults. What made you fixate on being honest and blunt without sensitivity to other peoples feelings and needs? Also do the conversations always have to revolve around what you think and say… And is that what friendship is about anyways… what you think and say? Or possibly is friendship a much deeper and more meaningful thing that what you think or have to say..and at the cost of the person on the other end. A lot of times people are honest because deep down they are angry. You may want to look within and see if there are deeper issues for your need to be honest and hurt other people. Relationships between two people are much more than the one-sided conversation you speak of.

  • :-)

    You may like this article:

    http://tinybuddha.com/blog/the-foundation-of-love-releasing-judgments-and-expectations/

    When we love others, we love them the way they want to be loved, not how we want to love them.

  • :-)

    One final thing. No one pushed these concepts on you. You came onto them with your own free will. Give others that chance. Let them figure out what ideas work for them on their own time and own terms, own free will.

  • Anne

    I just had a related experience as the one described in this blog entry. I’m still processing it and have a heavy heart.

    Recently, I wrote a strongly-worded letter to a dear friend about some of her risky behaviors (mostly related to men, substances, and certain party friends). There’s less risky stuff than when we first met, but there are lingering ones that I think are toxic, and also potential derailers/roadblocks for forward movement.

    (I will say, in our friendship, I was influenced by her lifestyle, and ended up hurt. I should’ve stuck to my own cautious ways.)

    I’ve held back for a long time saying what I said in the letter so directly—I’ve hinted, etc…. But some things happened recently to where it was driving me nuts not saying it. (Despite the forward movement, she still dabbles in some of the risky stuff, and I finally pointed it out point blank in a letter.)

    In the letter, I emphasized that I cherished her as a friend and had struggled with whether or not to send it. I said I was really worried about her b/c of the risky behaviors, which I listed and described why I thought they are so dangerous. I questioned why she kept doing them, when she kept getting hurt over and over. I emphasized, you only get one life, and it’s your responsibility to “woman up” and take the wheel.

    I knew it would piss her off and she may not even want to be friends anymore. I just couldn’t sit back and watch the red flags without saying something.

    She felt like I was judging her and not giving enough credit. She didn’t see the behaviors as risky… which I honestly see as denial/delusion. I tried to emphasize that it was behaviors, not her as a person, and I had in fact said in the letter that I think she is worth way more than how she treats herself. As for credit, I tried to clarify that I saw the behaviors as roadblocks to the good work she’s doing (I’d also recognized her forward movement in the letter). It was like there was a wall—we were at an impasse in full disagreement.

    She said she was taking inventory and making uncalled-for recommendations on her life. She listed two examples: a friend I held accountable for not seeking addiction treatment, and an old abusive boss who pulled her crap for 6 FULL YEARS until I came along—the only one with the balls to bring it up with her supervisor, who fired her. These people needed to be held accountable for their actions, and I was the only one who would step up and do it. Yet my friend insists I was out of line in “telling them what to do.”

    Part of me wishes I was more patient and expected less from her, but most of me feels I was right to call out some BS.

    Anne: In Nichiren Buddhism there’s a saying: “If one befriends another person but lacks the mercy to correct him, one is in fact his enemy.”

    Alex

  • chris

    To Anne:

    This post could have had another title: The Courage to Confront and be Confronted.

    Reasons to confront, besides “mercy” in Alex’s quote: If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

  • Anne

    Thank you, I needed the validation. I should also add: Alex, thank you for posting on this topic. It creates a lot of dialogue b/c the topic of “being real” with friends needs to be explored. It takes a lot of courage to take the heat and navigate the comments, and you’re doing a great job!

    Anne: Thank you for saying so.

    Alex

  • Becky

    I have a similar conundrum, but with full expectation that the person’s defenses are so fortified that truth cannot possibly get through.

    The only reason I even consider approaching the issue is that the topic is this man holds out hope that one day my daughter will date him. It is not going to happen.

    He is socially awkward/very annoying, from a dysfunctional family. This makes him very alone in the world and our family has unofficially adopted him, so he spends every Thanksgiving and Christmas with us. He also has had a crush on my daughter for the last 10 years. It makes the holidays less fun for my daughter, so I want to change that, but because he is so alone, I cannot bear to tell him to not come to Thanksgiving or Christmas.

    So, I decided to just tell him that my daughter is never going out with him, and use as an illustration the way she reacted when he mentioned coming to visit her in her city. She was polite, but not enthused. But after reading this blog and the citing of 1-2% actually listen to such things, and knowing how insecure he is and ergo, how fortified his defenses are, I see no hope in that approach. I expect he will either totally not hear it or be utterly annihilated emotionally—almost no exaggeration!

    But, if I say nothing, I feel like I’ve left my daughter out to dry. Any suggestions?

  • Anne

    @Becky—That’s a crappy awkward situation on your hands. That really sucks for your daughter (even more so if she’s in middle/high school). Is he emotionally/mentally unstable (i.e., outbursts, breakdowns, etc.) or just awkward?

    If he’s just awkward, would you feel comfortable just talking to him honestly about your concerns? Something like, “It’s nothing personal at all but we enjoy a family-style holiday without romance, and when that dynamic gets shaken up it’s uncomfortable. Family quirk, etc.”

    It just would be a shame to endure this for who knows how long, plus it may get worse, especially if he’s closed off. But if he’s unstable then that’s another matter, although you’re entitled to your boundaries.

  • joanwinnek

    I just opened this, read my previous comment, and saw the date. I wrote that three days before I left the convalescent hospital where I was placed following a five-day hospitalization that resulted from a complete physical breakdown after I had a horrible reaction to my first Zometa treatment for newly diagnosed bone metastasis of the breast cancer I had been successfully treated for in 2003, and two hairline fractures of my pelvis. My sister came from 500 miles away and saved my life. Then I had to confront the fact that my dear husband had dementia that affects his short-term memory and executive function to the extent that he could not care for me or make decisions on my behalf. Close to death, I had our lawyer visit me in the hospital and execute a power of attorney to entrust my sister with all my affairs. My husband objected and that was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. With the help of my sister and daughter and other family members, both he and I moved into a senior living facility where we are safe, comfortable, and have meals. With more family help a space in our house is being converted into an apartment where our daughter can live and care for us when she is not working, so we hope by March to move home, with daytime assistance from a home health care caregiver. My treatment has continued with amazing success, so I now need only a cane to walk and can drive. I am 73 and my husband is 72. In the four months we have lived here my husband’s dementia has worsened drastically, complicated by hearing loss that means his hearing aids must be adjusted frequently. I must keep track of all his medical needs and supervise his daily meds. He can no longer drive or communicate clearly with the staff, and he sleeps most of the day, on and off. He can’t remember or understand what I have to do or how difficult it is for me. As long as I can I will care for him, but the need for outside help looms.

    I have written so much because I needed to, and I thank you for your indulgence.

    JoanWinnek: My deepest sympathies for all you’re going through. You are stronger than you know. Please don’t allow yourself to be defeated.

    Alex

  • joanwinnek

    Whoops, just looked again at the date of my first reply: 2011, not 2012. All the more a powerful synchronicity, that this came to me today. I am grateful for this, and for much else in my life.

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