How do people go about bringing honest communication into their friendships and relationships?
September 21, 2007 10:12 PM   Subscribe

How do people go about bringing honest communication into their friendships and relationships?

A lot of the "human relations" questions on Mefi have made me reflect on the fact that friends or romantic partners often keep quiet about the dislikes/issues they have with another person. This can sometimes lead to a build of up festering resentment and the straining of either friendship/romantic relationship.

So, have any of you learned to avoid building up resentment with friends or lovers by communicating your dislikes? How did you bring yourself to have the courage to say unpleasant, critical things to said friend/lover?

Seems to me that this kinda of honesty, while avoiding build up of resentment, can also offend the person who becomes the subject of criticisms/complaints/nitpicking? So I guess with all of that in mind, my question basically comes down to two issues:

1.) How to get the courage to communicate honestly
2.) How to "criticize" people in a way that gets your message across but doesn't insult them and make them feel horrible? (The goal is to to be honest, but not be a jerk.)
posted by gregb1007 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is my friend.

Sometimes it's a real problem that needs addressing, sometimes it's just MY problem and I need to get over myself. It's important to be able to discern the difference.
posted by padraigin at 10:28 PM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have the type of personality where I can't hold something in for too long. If something is actually bothering me, then it will eat away at me until I resolve it. And since thinking about something doesn't tend to solve problems, I end up telling my S.O. pretty much everything. When I do bring things up though, I tend to temper it a lot. A fair warning, e.g. "I know this probably won't be pleasant to you", "let me preface this by saying that I'm not blaming you, I just want to be honest with you", that kind of thing. Even if hearing that warning phrase in and of itself is more trite than anything else, it gives them a chance to mentally prepare.

Don't deal in absolutes, don't accuse, and focus on why it bothers YOU. Don't say "you did this and it's bad." Something like "I felt bad about [insert event here] because of this." Make it about you, not about them. This way it gives them a chance to contribute and maybe help you see things from a different perspective, too. As padraigin says, sometimes you're the one who needs to compromise. Communication is crucial in either case, but absolutes put people on the defensive instantly.

And old thread of mine asking for advice on Effective Communication, there are some good tips there. Hope that helps.
posted by Phire at 10:45 PM on September 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, regarding courage... Realize that the problem won't poof and go away on its own just because you ignore it. It's more likely to be exacerbated. Try to make yourself realize that communication, even though it can be painful, is nearly always better than the alternative of silent brooding, build-up of resentment, etc.
posted by Phire at 10:46 PM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

He comes across as a total jerk in this interview (related Metafilter thread), but you and your partner could both read Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton, and then try to be completely open and honest with each other.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 11:00 PM on September 21, 2007

It can help to emphasize that you are talking about your feelings rather than an independent criticism. This allows the possibility that you are wrong and your partner is right. Everyone makes irrational criticisms at one point or another.

Let your partner know that it is okay for them to tell you that you are batshit insane. You might be. There aren't many people that discover they are by themselves. The important thing is that you are talking, not that you are right.

Likewise, having an argumant about an issue is way better than quietly resenting your partner for it. People don's usually chance on their own,
posted by Quonab at 11:29 PM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

err People don't ususally change on their own.
posted by Quonab at 11:49 PM on September 21, 2007

I give up.
posted by Quonab at 11:50 PM on September 21, 2007

What kinds of things are we talking about here? My SO cannot seem to remember to put the lid on the kitchen rubbish, or to leave the bathroom door ajar, but after asking three times, I've given up because to keep harping on about it really would be nit-picking. I can fix the door and adjust the lid myself. I suck at turning out lights and leave towels everywhere, which he constantly picks up; nobody is perfect, and expecting them to be in not reasonable.

In terms of larger issues, I think its important to try to frame things outside of blame. That will automatically make the person defend themselves, and that's not a conversation, its an argument. Framing things around "I need X" or "Y would make me really happy" can make things easier.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:13 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am one of the really-really-honest with my close ones crew, and I think the first thing you have to do is be able to judge when you're feeling annoyed whether it's their wrongdoing or your intolerance. If they're being hurtful or dishonest (which is the same thing as hurtful once you establish trust in this kind of practiced honesty) call them on it, thoughtfully. Most people are COMPLETELY incapable of sensible introspection and confrontation like this, it seems.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:35 AM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

Being lighthearted and using a little humour allows you to be honest about stuff that annoys you about friends/partners without being offensive. But only if we're talking relatively minor things. Practical things, or minor character traits that are still likeable or acceptable in context.

But that's all I can think of being an issue with friends or partners. It has to be about relatively minor stuff, or at least stuff you can tolerate and forgive and accept. Something you get over because you like/love that person a lot.

If you don't like major things about friends or partners well, what are you doing with them in the first place...?

I don't believe resentment is a result of not being outspoken about what annoys you about friends. It's not that by naming what annoys you, it disappears!

Honesty is not a magic tool to 'redesign' other people's characters to our preferences. It's a selfish concept of honesty frankly, not because it may be offensive, but because it demands that others adjust to ourselves.

Say I have a friend who goes on and on and on about her job in detail (like the things she does, not complaints) and it can get real boring.

Joking about it is a way of saying, look this thing you do annoys me but not that much that I'd give you a serious lecture about it. I'm just making fun of you for it precisely because it's not serious enough. Just like you can make fun of it for all the annoying little things I do. I don't expect you to change your behaviour and you cannot expect me to change mine. I don't even want you to. Your going on about work so much can get boring but it's who you are, you are dedicated to it, you like it, it takes up a lot of your time, you're different from me, I like you as you are anyway and if I didn't put up with those little annoying things about you, you wouldn't put up with mine, so we're even!

But if I went all serious about it, like I'm some of perfect being with no annoying traits, that wouldn't be 'honesty', that would be demanding that she changes her behaviour with me. Paradoxically my honesty would be a way of trying to force her to be fake with me.

If I like her as she is, if there's more things about her I find pleasant than things I find annoying, then what's the point? No one is perfect. She can get obsessive and boring about work, I can get obsessive and boring about something else. We're human.

You cannot change other people. You have to take them as they are.

So if resentment builds up, and keeps building up, it's not because you haven't been 'honest' with them, it's because there's more things about them that annoy you than things that you like. You've got to deal with this on your own.

There are people who simply do not understand this.

There are also people who think that they have a right to be 'honest' with you about what they find annoying about you even if this thing has nothing whatsoever to do with them. Like, what you do with your private life as in, who you sleep with or who you hang out with apart from them or interests you pursue personally outside of your relationship with them. These people are selfish narcissist jerks who use 'honesty' as a disguise for their being judgemental.

Be aware of the difference. Honesty can be an ambiguous concept in our society. And it can be vastly overrated anyway.
posted by pleeker at 4:15 AM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

How to "criticize" people in a way that gets your message across but doesn't insult them and make them feel horrible?

Assertiveness training. There are specific, simple techniques for doing precisely this. The world would be a much better place if we all learned them in high school.
posted by futility closet at 5:02 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think timing also matters. If I present the criticism as an immediate reaction to something, it's likely to trigger a defensive backlash. If the conversation is more removed from whatever's been irritating me, it becomes more impersonal for both people, and we're both more likely to be objective and rational about it.
posted by bassjump at 5:49 AM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

It requires that one of the people go out on a limb and actually let the other know their true feelings.

I would also say that open and honest communication is easier if the people have known each other for a while. There has to be a base of trust there already for the other person to want to communicate openly.
posted by reenum at 6:25 AM on September 22, 2007

In my experience, the resentment doesn't necessarily go away as a result of the honest criticism. Sometimes it's that the friend/lover isn't intentionally doing those disliked-by-me things -- those things are either unconscious, or deeply ingrained, or in some other way completely inaccessible to my friend, so s/he continues doing it even so. Other times it's that although the thing I dislike affects our relationship, it has utility in the other aspects of my friend's life, and for that reason they're not prepared to change.

That's why I have come to feel that the best route to mitigate resentment is to just talk about the tendency, without being critical or specifying that it's annoying. An open, curious, "I've noticed that in X situation, you do Y," kind of thing. It usually leads them to open up and say, "Yeah! I think I've been doing that since my parents' divorce. My dad used to always Z, so probably I'd Y in order to make my mom feel better."

I've found that once I think I know where it comes from, I take it less personally.
posted by xo at 8:11 AM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

You're framing the questions in the wrong way. Honest communication comes from talking (honestly) about how you feel, not from talking (at all) about the other person.

"You do X, Y, and Z and it's annoying" is an accusation. Even if it's true, the recipient of the accusation is most likely to switch into defensive mode, which isn't going to further honest communication. You've basically triggered a fight-or-flight response, not rational thought.

This is what "I" statements are all about. "When you do X, I feel Y." "When you're late for picking me up, I feel abandoned and resentful."

There's also a structure you can use of "I notice X, I feel Y, I want Z, I'm willing to A." "I notice that you're often late in picking me up. I feel abandoned and scared when that happens. I'd like to figure out a way that works for both of us so that you don't feel frazzled and resentful, but that I get picked up on time. I'm willing to shift my work hours, if that would help."

Once you have a firm handle on "I" statements (and you don't you sneaky cheat-around like "I think you're a jerk" or "I think you never take my feelings into account," which are really just accusations), then the idea would be to try to bring up grievances as soon as possible -- preferably immediately, but certainly within 24 hours -- so that they don't fester and get out of proportion.

I've heard the analogy used of rust. If you clean off the rust pretty quickly, it's not a big deal. If you leave it for a week or a month or a year, it's gonna be damned hard to get rid of without a lot of work.

And then the other component, which others have touched on, is making sure you're in touch with your own actual feelings. First, because you need to be able to talk about how you feel when you present your feelings. Second, because it's good to know whether someone's annoying the fuck out of you because you're hungry, tired, hot, sick, or otherwise emotionally incapacitated, rather than because they're actually doing something that objectionable. (Though you could still speak up, just with a "I'm really hungry and not functioning well right now, can we talk about this later?")

So, basically, the idea is that honest communication starts with you honestly communicating about your own needs, wants, and feelings. Without that first step, you're unlikely to get other people to honestly communicate about their own needs, wants, and feelings, either.

John Gottman has pretty easy-to-follow rules about this stuff that might help you get started.
posted by occhiblu at 8:18 AM on September 22, 2007 [14 favorites]

You have just stepped into an entire bookshelf in the self-help section of the library. You might consider checking out Difficult Conversations, Fierce Conversations, or Nonviolent Communication (or its website).
posted by salvia at 11:05 AM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

From my point of view, if you've got a beef with me, I'd much rather you just came out and told me before it got serious. I'm a strong believer in dealing with issues before they become problems or deal-breakers. That goes in my personal, professional, and social lives.

I honestly don't understand people who aren't frank, open and upfront about when they're having an issue - all bottling it up does is make everyone unhappy and uncomfortable. I've been on the recieving end of that sort of behaviour, and it's awful. I dislike being treated with various passive-aggressive behaviours when they won't come out and tell me what's wrong. I don't have ESP, I can't fix it if I don't know what it is - and in the meantime, there's a lot of dissonance and negativity floating around.

For me, it takes a lot less courage to be upfront and honest than it does to take the supposed 'cowards' way out, and hide how I feel. I'd rather face the pinprick now than the nuclear meltdown later.
posted by ysabet at 7:30 PM on September 22, 2007

After three years of finding sacred ground of communication with my husband I have found the following things to be effective when trying to have an open relationship:

1) DO NOT ever speak when you are upset or when you or both of you are busy. Also, do not choose the time when the both of you are watching tv or something where the other person is trying to relax or focus on something else. Give them a heads up with "I need to talk to you about something later." And leave it at that. Do not bring up what it is, even if they ask, just say "later."

2) The phrase "When this happens, it makes me feel ____." DO NOT ever use accusatory words that start with "when you do this..." No matter your tone or your intentions, people will get defensive and the conversation will just escalate.

3) NEVER EVER bring up the past. I know a lot of people like to bring up examples to prove their point, especially if it is something that has not changed, but it is a bad idea. You are not trying to prove a point, keep that in mind. Proving a point would entail that you were right and the other person was wrong, that is not what you should be doing. You should be stating how you are feeling and how certain behaviors/situations make you feel. There is no right or wrong in that, you are simply stating something from your point of view. If they ask for examples, bring it up, but watch how you say it. Be as objective as possible when describing the situation, state what they did exactly and how that made you feel.

You should keep focused on how you feel, but stay as objective as possible when you are discussing the other person's actions. And never ever bring up how other people, such as family, have noticed their behavior. Unless it is drug or alcohol related, it is a bad idea to inform the person you are trying to speak with that others know about your issues. I have made the mistake of speaking with in-laws about certain issues and while it was helpful to get an outsider's point of view, if not for selfish reasons to confirm that I was right, telling your partner this would state just that, that you are right and now others think so too. This would just be a no win situation for your significant other/family member. And you have to give that person the chance to make amends and to full comprehend the situation, perhaps they were not even aware of it.

I guess the most important point is, be the bigger person, no matter what. If you are enough of a person to notice that there is something wrong in your relationship with someone, you can be a big person and consider their situation in addition to yours. Are they stressed out too? Are others treating them poorly? While treating you poorly or overlooking your feelings is no excuse, it could be the cause of certain behaviors that are not the person's true intent towards you.
posted by dnthomps at 5:55 AM on September 23, 2007 [7 favorites]

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