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Relationship Fix: How to Tell Difficult Truths So People Thank You
There is a piece of wisdom about life and relationships so important that it should have been posted on the walls of our elementary schools and taught us every day: Our lives are shaped by the significant truths we say or don’t say.
Most of those life-defining truths can be spoken in ten seconds with one out-breath. Think of the difference in the life of Bill Clinton and all of us in America had he said, “Yes, indeed—I had lots of sex with that woman.” That’s an example of a ten second, one out-breath truth that would have saved us all considerable time and money. In the aftermath of a ten-second lie, “I didn’t have sex with that woman,” came fifty million dollars worth of hassle and a year of partisan bickering.
Most of our truths are not the fifty-million-dollar kind, but in the context of our lives they have that same level of importance. That’s why it’s important to learn how to communicate the truth. The barrier most people face in speaking the truth is that they don’t want to do it in a way that hurts other people and stirs up trouble. From three decades of helping people speak difficult truths to each other, we’ve learned a few simple techniques and principles that can make the process much easier.
When You Speak The Unarguable, People Don’t Argue
If I say to you, “My stomach feels queasy,” you’d have a difficult time arguing with me. If I say to you, “You make me sick to my stomach,” you’d probably find plenty to argue with me about in that sentence. The difference is intention. If I say, “My stomach feels queasy,” my intention is to reveal my inner experience. If I say, “You make me sick to my stomach,” my intention is to blame you for my experience. In speaking difficult truths so that people thank you afterwards, the trick is to reveal your inner experience and stay out of blame.
Breakthroughs in relationship communication are always brought about by saying unarguable things and never by blaming. It’s possible to communicate the most difficult truths in this new way, so that people are literally filled with gratitude afterwards.
The trick is to speak first from your three major feeling-zones:
Zone 1 is made up of your neck, shoulders and mid-back. When you’re tense in this zone it’s because you’re holding onto anger you haven’t communicated.
Zone 2 is your throat and chest. This zone tells you when you’re feeling sad by signaling you with constriction (“lump in the throat”) and a sense of heaviness.
Zone 3 is your stomach and beltline area. Tension and racy-queasy sensations (“butterflies”) tell you that you’re scared.
Let’s say you want to break up with your lover. Your main complaints are that he never helps around the house, he has a perfect record of forgetting your birthday and he is unwilling to make a long-term commitment to the relationship.
Scenario One: You say to him: I’m leaving you because you’re lazy, disrespectful and commitment-phobic. Would he be likely to thank you for sharing this “truth” with him? Probably not. He’d probably argue with all three of your labels for him. You’ve provided him with a perfect way to avoid learning anything from your communication, because you’ve communicated it in arguable terms.
Scenario Two: You say to him: For a long time I’ve been feeling sad and disappointed. I can feel it right now in my chest, and I can hear it in my voice. I don’t think I’m getting what I want in our relationship. I feel angry a lot at you, and although I feel scared about being by myself, I think I’d rather face that fear than continue to feel what I’ve been experiencing the past year.
There’s no guarantee he’ll thank you for speaking those truths, but we can give you a pretty solid guarantee that he won’t argue with you. We know, because we’ve coached hundreds of people to speak like that in sessions, and it stops arguments cold.
With regard to thanks, we’ve seen many situations in which people felt upset at hearing unarguable truths. However, they registered the impact of the communication and learned from it. Later, when they’ve digested it thoroughly, they often thank and appreciate the speaker for being courageous enough to speak the truth in a way that didn’t produce arguments.