A few years ago I walked into a classroom. An ordinary classroom on an ordinary first day of class. As I took a seat, however, my attention was pulled towards the chalkboard, where the professor had left these words:
- Show up and choose to be present
- Pay attention to what has heart and meaning
- Tell the truth without blame or judgment
- Be open rather than attached to the outcome
Immediately I knew that this class was going to be different. This instructor would demand more. No zoning out. No eyes averted when asked a question. None of it.
By choosing these particular words, in fact, I imagined that the teacher was erecting a fortress to keep out those habitual tricks that all students are familiar with. And in doing so, she was asking us to move out of comfortable complacency.
To move toward full engagement.
I was hooked. The words charmed me, as she spoke them aloud. Not only were they a fine way to begin a class, I reasoned, but a fine way to live a life as well.
As it turned out, the words came from cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien. And they stuck. Clung to me, really, as words sometimes can. They’re still with me, actually, unexpectedly asserting themselves (as you’ll see in a second).
But first, let me give you some history: in my travels around blogland lately, I’ve happened upon a heap of articles about how to deal with difficult, negative, challenging people. And there seems to be two reverberating themes.
Or turn the other cheek and rise above them.
And here’s where Angeles Arrien’s words come in. They’ve been inquiring: What about us? I think they feel left out, and they’re pining for a more cooperative approach. An approach that might unfold like this:
Meet the difficult person right where they are (be present); practice empathy for them (pay attention to heart); tell the person, kindly, how you experience them (tell the truth without blame/judgment); and have no expectations about the result (be open to outcome).
Honestly, we (the words and I) are a bit surprised that we haven’t encountered such advice yet. And personally, it’s not because I’m in some dreamy altered state that’s rattled my brain and made me think it’s easy to deal with difficult people. Nope, I’ve been around the block a few times. So let’s go straight to the questions that keep bubbling up for me.
Who among us is not at times difficult?
Here and there negative?
With spells of acting out?
Of course, I’m not talking about bona fide toxic people here. The kind that are dangerous to our well-being. When we encounter them, the best strategy is often to run like the wind. Get as much distance as possible.
No, for our purposes today I’m talking about garden-variety challenging people.
You know, like your sister who’s in a period of high drama. Your friend who’s depressed by the state of the world. Your co-worker who gets defensive when you ask a question. Your mother who constantly nit-picks. Your boss who believes you have all the time in the world.
How often do we honestly share our feelings with these people, and tell the truth, without judgment or blame?
Not often enough, I’m thinking. Oh, sometimes we can be present and pay attention to heart. Maybe even detach from the outcome. But the part about telling the truth? Not so much.
It can feel risky to speak the truth to a difficult person. But when we do step up and gently engage with them, a miraculous thing can happen: we allow ourselves, and our needs, to be known. As a result, defenses begin to crumble on both sides. And all that drama and negativity find a safe space in which to transform.
But yes, the truth does sometimes hurt.
In spite of that, though, I’ll be forever grateful to those people in my life who have cared enough to tell me the truth about my scowls and sulks. Just as I’ll be forever admiring of those clients who have stepped up to tell the truth to people in their lives.
Because when truth is approached lovingly, its potential to move us away from complacency, and in turn deepen our relationships, simply can’t be beat.
So what do you think? Am I hopelessly naive to think we need to tell each other the truth more often, even when it hurts? Have you had an experience where truth-telling went well? Or the opposite? Jump in and join the conversation, and let’s get a dialogue going.
WHY NOT START NOW?
how are you?
i believe the truth hurting is relative but I strongly believe it’s our egos that get in the way and as a result makes us feel hurt, sad…
then again if the truth wasnt said or approached in a loving way, it would stir up anger, pain, hatred …and if it was the other way love, positive response or attitude will be experienced
the truth seeks out to give us joy, happiness, chastise, correct, improve, encourage us all the time and dont forget there are good feelings expereinced with it.
i guess it just boils down to how the approach is.
am i just rambling here?
tell me the truth???
Hi Ayo – I’m doing very well, how about you? I agree with you that approach is key. When we share our feelings with others from a place of blame and judgment, then it will not go well. When we share our feelings from a place of love and empathy, miracles can happen. Thanks so much for your comment!
In order to tell the truth, we need to be open to the outcome, not anticipating what will happen. I found this out in a profound manner recently by not telling the full truth to a friend. I was afraid of what I anticipated the outcome to be and got slammed for it. I needed to be open to what would have happened had the whole truth come out in one fell swoop.
Hi Nicki – Thanks for sharing that story. It’s just what I’m talking about. Half-truths to those we care about have a way of coming back to bite us in the butt! I’ve been there myself, and I too got slammed. Perfect word!
I think your teacher’s four-step process is ideal, and I wish all teachers implemented it. That said, I’m not sure it’s transferable to all relational situations. It’s certainly a goal!
While truth is absolute, our understanding and interpretation of it often is not. Our personal ‘truth’ varies with the filters of our own psychology and experience, and can indeed be hurtful, even destructive, if dispensed wholesale — even in love. Both ways — coming or going.
And what is truth when shared between friends? Is it the truth of what is? What can be (potentially)? Or what might (or might not) have been had I been in a different state of mind at the time?
I’m thinking of a mom, for instance. Does she bless her kids with the truth of what they can become (rather than what they are at the moment), while simultaneously disciplining them when they intentionally tell a lie? And are her kids’ ‘lies’ nothing more than creative imaginings and ought instead to be fostered? Hmmm…
I see the incredible value of your teacher’s four steps for process. It’s a learning mind-set, and vital to our growth. I’d like to have had more teachers like that. It’s certainly a good place to start…….
Thanks for provoking thought. 🙂
Hi Barb – Wow, so much good stuff in your comment. I agree that truth is relative, and when I think of the big concept of truth, realize that I don’t know much. And certainly what I’ve written here doesn’t apply to parent/child relationships. There’s also another aspect which I did not even touch on, but I think you hint at in your question about truth between friends, which is how much of our reactions to “difficult” people are really about our own stuff, what Jung called “shadow” and projection? That would be a post for another day.
However, the thing I’ve experienced about adult-to-adult interactions, especially when we are perceiving the other party as “difficult,” is that we often hesitate to share our feelings. For me, feelings are truth, just what is, but paying attention to heart transforms them. So when I feel empathy for a friend who some might label as “difficult,” my anger at a certain situation will likely transform into sadness or confusion. Then, instead of avoiding or stuffing my feelings or even saying, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you always show up 30 minutes late for our meetings?” from a place of anger, I can say “This relationship is very important to me but I feel confused about your commitment to it when you arrive late so often.” Actually, this is a real life experience for me, where heart and truth (feelings) combined to deepen the relationship.
As I write this I realize I could have been much clearer in my post, so thank you so much for helping me see that. It’s also opened a door to another topic I didn’t know I wanted to write about, which is conflict resolution styles. That’s part of what Angeles Arrien is talking about when she encourages us to speak truth without judgment or blame.
Hi Patty! Boy I can sure understand the attraction to what was written on the board. I’m sure that teacher had the full attention of the class! She set it up beautifully by expressing in such a gracious way her (sort of) expectations for her students. I’ll have to remember that!
As for truth? Oh wow, what a subject! I’ve found that sometimes to discern what is truth vs. my opinion is like trying to separate wet toilet paper without ripping it’s delicate nature – not that I DO this, mind you – but I’m looking for an example, ha!
I question IS my truth, my opinion? Then I have to look and see just where ego fits into this. At times all this analysis going on in my head keeps me from saying ANYthing!
I was given “the truth” as someone else saw it years ago and it was devastating. I don’t think I ever felt so unloved and unacceptable in my life! It changed the relationship with this person forever (distant family member) and I still feel uncomfortable talking to this person after 20 yrs. have gone by.
I’ve been working on two blogs – both fact-based, truth-based and researched – and I suspect my readers are not going to want to hear about any of it. It will be interesting! Look for it March 1st.
Hi SuZen – Thanks so much for that story. I’m just betting that the truth you were given did not come from a place of heart, empathy, love, or true presence. I hear many stories like this in my work, and it leads to these relationship hurts and cut-offs, just as you speak of. Moving away from that, moving towards a way of interaction that is collaborative and cooperative is exactly what I’m getting at here. There’s so much work to be done in the areas of communication and conflict resolution. Btw, you’ve certainly piqued my interest with your hint about your new blogs! Hugs!
I know exactly what you mean. The times when I choose to share a bit more of myself or comment honestly on a situation, it seems that I get back so much. And yet, I have to remind myself to do this, over and over again. Why is being present the hardest practice? I’m going to take those words of Angeles Arrien to heart.
Yeah, I know what you mean, Charlotte. Thanks for pointing that out. I need to remind myself too. I think it’s because it feels risky. So it takes courage to be honest, and not be attached to how the situation will unfold. What I’ve discovered, though, is that when I am honest, or others are honest with me, then we usually get past any worry about how it will turn out, and in fact become much closer.
Patty – wow, another stunning post. Thank you.
The four pillars shared by the teacher are so powerful and could form the basis of any personal philosophy. They engage, energize and teach.
Your discussion of difficult people is challenging for many. To meet people where they are with compassion, openness and honesty is so different from the way we are typically conditioned. It requires us to strip off our cultural heritage and put our ego in jeopardy. We open ourselves to all sorts of perceived vulnerability. Yet, I know that when I have the courage to go there, I find amazing things – joy, forgiveness, love. The truth can be scary, however not telling the truth is almost always much worse.
Wow – you’ve really got me thinking and I know I can rely on you for that.
Thank you, Phil. You’ve beautifully articulated just what I was trying to say. Opening ourselves to our vulnerability, perceived and otherwise, is exactly it! I just love all that you’ve written, and I hope everyone will read it because you’ve managed to capture in a few paragraphs what I was going for in 700-plus words! Fantastic!
This is a great post! The truth is very freeing and when we present the truth with love than we stand a good chance of the truth creating a deeper relationship. The approach is key. I have found that the best way for someone to hear the truth is when they hear themselves saying it. I have spent a good amount of time learning to formulate questions that are designed to get a person to say what I want them to hear. If you can get the person to say the truth you want to tell them you tend to remove the possibility of hurt and anger and increase the level of acceptance.
Beautiful point, Mark. I don’t know what your questions are, but in the communication process called mirroring, when we ask another person to speak their truth to us, then mirror it back to them, people do often say what we want them to hear. And that releases so much hurt and anger. And then when we do the same with our truth, and they mirror back to us, it takes us to another level altogether. Btw, I’d love to learn more about your questions. Thanks!
Hi Patty, For me, I do my best to always tell the truth. Sure I may let a little untruth slip in from time to time, but I try to limit those. You can tell when people are wiggling out of the truth or are frequent liars. And those people are not fun to be around. It’s also very stressful to lie, having to constantly worry about someone finding out. It’s so much easier to just tell the truth. I try to avoid stress and worry as best I can, so truth telling is a necessary part of that. Hakuna Matata.
Hi Eric – Sounds like a very centered way to live your life. And you’re so right, stress often comes from not telling the truth. And I’m wondering, does your commitment to truth extend to dealing with difficult people? I’m betting you pull that one off gracefully and calmly. Thanks for the comment!
This is simply beautiful. I wrote those sentences down in my journal before I got to the end of the article. I totally agree with you. Yes we need to tell the truth more often.
I read on a blog once, “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not.” How powerful is that. I give credit but didn’t write down who wrote it. Auugghhh
So now I’m putting Patti’s blog by what I wrote. Thanks!
Thank you, Tess! I always love to hear your thoughts, and that quote is indeed powerful. I’m writing gonna write it down too.
Hi Patty, those words your professor opened with are so powerful and this piece is the best I’ve ever read on truth-telling. I’m not prepared to say I follow your prof’s four tenets. I’d like to believe I strive to follow them but if I were to be graded, I know I wouldn’t get an A.
My husband teaches me to meet a difficult person where they are. I can recall times when, no, I wouldn’t lie or fudge the truth but instead be on the opposite end of the spectrum and be completely graceless in my delivery. You can guess where those interactions went: nowhere.
But lately, I’m learning that when we don’t tell others the truth (or when we don’t express genuine words/feelings that may be construed as confrontational), we’re really underestimating their capacity to comprehend it and meet us with equal genuineness. I have been amazed at how well things go when I’ve told the truth in a caring way. There may be a bit of hurt and defensiveness at first but we all have a tremendous capacity for resilience. We don’t always allow ourselves to find out how much we can handle but it’s mind-blowing how much hurt we can survive.
Thank you, Belinda! I love how you give yourself a grade. I would not get an “A” either, but I think they’re lovely tenets to strive for. Probably a life-long thing, don’t you think? And I’m so glad you mention resilience, because I have a hunch experiences like this actually build our resilience and increase our empathy.
I like your teacher, we are on similar posting wavelengths this week 🙂 The truth hurts, and it’s necessary. I like the concept of “centered truth” in a business context (I know you are writing on a personal level here). It’s the same principal but makes all those involved in something related to business be honest about what is working and what isn’t and supports the process of change. Well written post.
Oh, wow Marc, the whole truth thing in biz is so important. Arrien does actually do a lot of team-building and working with organizations. But, I actually think much of what is done in business applies on the personal level. After all, a relationship is a team of two, right? Thanks so much for your comments!
I think in a lot of cases meeting these people where they’re at is just what they need. Some people are difficult because they don’t feel *seen* and *meeting* them and listening could help soften them. Of course not all difficult people will respond in the same way and sometimes putting the truth out there will not give the results a person thinks it might. Letting go of expectations will help make *that* less difficult for both parties.
Hi Davina – Welcome! So nice to have you visit. You said it perfectly, about not being seen or heard. I’ve sure been there, and when a person gently confronted me about my difficultness, I did finally feel seen and understood, as strange as that seems. Thanks so much for pointing this out!
Patty, Excellent post. I am a fellow traveler on the path of truth. I think the truth does hurt sometimes. But guess what, not telling the truth hurts worse in the long run and does more damage. Being up front with it might hurt more intensely, but it leads to letting go and healing.
Something I would add to your thoughts – I like your approach to difficult people but for me the caveat is that the relationship has to be important to me before I take such action as you describe. If it’s just an acquaintance, occasional interaction, or stranger, I don’t invest the energy.
Love that, Linda, a traveler on the path of truth. I know you speak as one who’s been there, and understands the nature of letting go and healing. And I adore your addition to my thoughts. Being able to discern where to spend the energy is key. Thank you!
I would agree with all previous comments that those are the best guidance in life for any situation.
I do know a few difficult people and sometimes being with them is one of the most difficult things for me. But I love them (these are my relatives) and this love helps me approach every situation with delicacy and care. Being present and honest helps but sometimes they are now willing to cooperate. Well, I just add a little bit more of my attention and love to the conversation and try to melt any defensive or negative attitude. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it does not but at least I know that I do best in trying.
Hi Anastasiya – Welcome! So glad to see you here (and you have a lovely name, btw). I’m so glad you brought up how this works with relatives. Those we love are sometimes difficult, and you express so beautifully how you bring empathy and presence to these interactions. “Delicacy and care.” Wonderful. Thank you so much for your comments.
Hello Patty, it is my first visit to your blog and I am already liking the post that is right up front. I recall once being asked the question: which is the most important person in the world to you. The rightful answer? The one sitting right in front of us. It is about bringing our full presence into that very moment.
Oh, Evelyn, that’s powerful – the person right in front of us. Wow. (And welcome, btw!) I really appreciate the visit, and your very thoughtful words. Thanks!
Patty — WOW. This post hit me in my gut. I often struggle to be truthful with difficult people. Sadly, I tend to drift away from them, rather than deal with the difficulty. Sometimes, this is good when the person is a toxic person for me.
Other times, it’s because I find it hard to balance between being lovingly truthful and truthful…so I “tell” instead of “share.”
However, recently I did share with an old friend who is stuck in old negative patterns and struggling with her life. I asked her if she felt the patterns and what they were doing to her. We had a good sharing conversation. Not to go into more detail, but I felt better about our relationship after this:~)
Hi Sara – Yes, I’ve had that happen too, the drifting away. Sometimes it’s so sad. And I like the way you speak of toxic people – “when a person is toxic to me.” Because we all have to define that individually, don’t you think? It’s also great to hear about how you took a risk and shared with your friend. I’m always amazed how much that loving interaction can change things. Thanks so much for your comments!
Your post focuses on the third of Angeles Arrien declarations; “Tell the truth without blame or judgment”. While the other three declarations are easy and powerful agreements for a class of students to understand and accept; this one definitely opens a can of worms and is hard both to know what she means and even harder to practice in reality.
The problems are; whose ‘truth’ are we talking about? The only absolute truth belongs to God and all other ‘truths’ are merely people’s opinions, the validity of which can easily be argued, especially when it is about other people. To offer these ‘truths’ without blame or judgment sounds great in theory, but judgment is in my experience always present when we are expressing an opinion (truth), that is what ego’s do and we all have one.
Hi Wilma – Thanks for pointing that out. Because yes, at first glance it is hard to decipher the full meaning, but we did some further studying of her work and when she speaks of truth she is talking about authenticity, integrity, vision, intuition, creative problem solving, negotiation, and conflict resolution. It’s a bit like non-violent communication, where personal truth is communicated objectively and neutrally, (through factual observations, feelings, and needs), rather than judgmentally (through fear, guilt, shame, blame, praise, duty, punishment). I have a hunch you might actually like it! Love, Patty
Yes I probably will as ‘truth’ as a word is not that useful for me.
Integrity is a word I would indeed rather use.
I am just emerging from a toxic relationship with a sociopathic liar and can definitely say that no matter how hurtful the truth, it is better than the kindest of lies. The betrayal felt when the truth is revealed feels almost like rape….. Even though that is an exceptional case, in my normal daily interactions I try to be as truthful and tactful as possible, but mostly about who I am, I am determined not to lie (mask) about my true self. Because then I feel empty and depressed. Strangely enough my true self is quite lovable and acceptable to authentic people. Those shallow pretenders just don’t get me….
Hi Princess Kate – Welcome, and wow, thanks for sharing that story. What a journey you’ve been on, and I hear such emotion in your words. That betrayal you speak of, such a shock. And you’re so right: putting on a mask certainly does lead us to feel empty and hollow. But I love what you say about authentic people vs. shallow pretenders. Doesn’t sound strange at all to me. Thank you!
I don’t know if this really adds anything to the thought provoking dialogue that’s already been going on here but… well, here goes. 😛
I think truth telling is a very dangerous business, but then so is not telling it. A truth told to one who doesn’t want to hear it can sometimes be a damaging thing, even if you didn’t intend that outcome. A lie uncovered by someone who you were trying to hide truth from can sometimes lead to reconciliation and restoration, even if you were expecting the worst. Life can be downright weird like that.
So, what am I ultimately saying? Well, perhaps I’ll tell you the truth and hope for the best. And perhaps I’ll try not to lie out of regard for you. And if you don’t want to hear truth then perhaps it would go better if I respectfully hold my tongue.
Or I could simply ask, “What is truth?”
Yeah, that’s a big question Tony, what is truth? When Angeles Arrien speaks of truth, she’s talking about our feelings. Kind of like if I’m on the outs with a friend, I feel sad. So if I speak the truth of my feelings, I would say, “I feel sad because I haven’t seen you in awhile.” These feelings are my truth, no one else’s, and I claim them by using “I” statements. But beyond that, I’m never prepared to say what is truth and what is not. And actually, the older I get the more I realize how much I don’t know, about truth and everything else. Thanks so much for participating in the conversation.
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I had a conflict and so as not to hurt the party I was addressing I gave only a portion of the truth. I didn’t want it taken back to a 3rd party like I suspected it might be. The situation didn’t improve so I tried it again giving all the truth even trying to give it gently. The person both times spread to others my feelings and I look like the bad guy. I felt I was in a no win scenario from the beginning. The person admitted they were guilty of contributing to the situation yet to the 3rd party I’m still the enemy. I think egos and fears do get in the way and only a lover of truth will think on it and appreciate it later.