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Being Blunt: The Art of Being Helpful, Not Hurtful

We would all love to be considered completely honest communicators.  It feels good to be transparent, straightforward; someone who says what they feel, and tells it like it is.  But, sometimes that is hard to do effectively, without hurting the other person.  That’s why people often refer to it as being “brutally honest.”

The recipients of our opinions, our wisdom and advice, don’t want us to “should” on them.  They don’t want to be bruised by our words.  And why do we dispense these opinions, often without being asked?  A few people might do it for gratification of their own ego (those are the ones that come across as brutal), but most people have good intentions – we see something the other person doesn’t see; we know how they could do something better; we want them to have a happier/more productive life.  The key is to do this selflessly – for the betterment of the other person.

There is an art to being blunt and always helpful.  I asked someone who is really good at it – a co-worker who can be blunt and never hurtful; who can dispense advice in a way that I can receive comfortably, and in a way that is useful to me.  Here’s what I learned:

Empathy:  Bluntness requires that you genuinely care about the other person, and what will happen if you speak up.  Empathy is not sympathy, not the same as feeling sorry for someone.  It comes from a standpoint of equality and collaboration: being on the same side; wanting the same outcome; and not being hierarchical (one up / one down).

Reflective Listening:  Good listening in general follows the “two ears, one mouth” principle.  A good advisor will be talking a mere fraction of the time, and mostly listening.  Also, it is very helpful to repeat what you’ve heard, to ensure you understand what you are commenting on, before you pontificate.

Selectivity:  Pick your moments.  Don’t comment/advise on everything.  Wait until the issue is something on which you really can have an impact, and make sure the other person will be really receptive.

Affirmation / Validation: Enable the other person to hold their feelings securely.  Validate your understanding of where they are coming from.  Affirm the value of a successful outcome.  This is key in avoiding “shoulds.”

Tailoring the Message: Most importantly is communicating in a way that is meaningful to the other person.  Do they deal well with ambiguity and subtlety, or do they need to hear things in a concrete, specific way?  Can you be instructive in what you say, or is it better to “what-if” with them, and let them verbalize the solution (your suggested solution) themselves?  If you are close enough to the individual to be giving opinions and advice, the odds are, you already know how the person will best receive your information.  The art of bluntness requires that you express things from their point of view, from their style of learning, not necessarily your own.

For many years, I thought I was the only one who knew what was right for me.  By experiencing bluntness delivered exceptionally well, I’ve been able to open up and hear more from others.  I’m still far from perfect in delivering blunt communication – I often sound more judgmental than I want to be or even than I feel.  So tone is important too.

This is a skill I’m still working on, and I thought some of our readers might appreciate what I’ve been learning on my journey.

Now be nice!  (Too blunt?)