By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Most of us do not easily speak our truth. Our behavior is determined by years of conditioning. We are told, “Be nice and polite,” and “Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.” We may be so bogged down with shoulds and shouldn’ts that we find it hard to identfy our true feelings and needs, much less respectfully and responsibly communicate them to others.
There are basically four options when it comes to speaking vs. stuffing your truth:
Option number one is to stuff our truth down — also known as passivity, and this can potentially lead to problems with substance abuse and/or feelings of depression.
Option number two is to blast our truth out — also known as aggression. This can be seen as violence, yelling, road rage, or even being sarcastic or mean.
Option three is a combo plate, which is known as passive-aggressive. It might seemkind, but it is really aggressive. For example, someone smiles and agrees to do something for you, but then makes sarcastic comments while they do it.
And option number four is assertiveness. This is when you express your truth safely and responsibly and from the heart.
Whether you are enraged, sad, hurt, terrified or in need, there is always (and I have never found an exception to this!) a way to say it with respect.
I was once coaching a client in speaking her truth to an intimidating neighbor. She got clear on what she wanted to say, and she even practiced with me a few times. The following week she came in and said, “I spoke my truth but it didn’t work. He was rude back to me.”
But the definition of it “working” has nothing to do with how the other person responds. Of course it’s great if they calmly hear you and then negotiate or apologize ’til you both feel clear, but that’s the ideal situation and will not always be the case. It takes two people speaking this language in order for that to happen. You can only be in charge of the language you speak.
So whether you speak your truth aloud, email it, text it, or write it down and send it in an envelope with a stamp on it, what matters most is that you honor it. The less you stuff down your truth, the less likely it will come blasting out unkindly and the less need you will have to keep it down in unhealthy ways like overeating, drug use, alcoholism, smoking, or excessive screen time.
Here are some tips to improve your truth-telling:
1. Ask yourself how you really feel and what you really want and need.
Sometimes we need to get quiet and sift through resentment, blame, defensiveness and made-up stories in order to get to the innocent truth inside of us. Even if the other person can’t give you what you ask for, you still benefit by improving your communication skills.
2. Ask the other person if it’s a good time to talk.
It’s always a good idea to check in with the other person if you are going to say something difficult and make sure it’s a good time for them, or to set up a time that works for you both.
3. Speak your truth, respectfully and non-judgmentally.
If you are used to stuffing your truth down, it might come out harshly at first. It takes practice to say what you mean but not in a mean way.
4. Be non-blaming and non-defensive.
Stay open to understanding their side as well. If you don’t get aggressive or defensive, it is really hard for things to escalate. They might not go smoothly and respectfully, but it will only turn into a full-blown war if you both participate in fighting. It’s a skill to take in feedback without crumbling, defending or blaming.
5. Stick to the facts rather than interpretations, assumptions and stories.
It’s so easy to make up stories about why someone did or said something. You might even try checking out your stories and find that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for someone’s actions.
6. Use “I” statements.
Try to speak about how you feel. It’s very different when we say, “I feel hurt about what you said,” as opposed to, “You always speak to me that way.”
Using “I” statements is not just about literally starting a sentence with the word “I.” It’s important to watch out for sneaking in a “you” statement disguised as an “I” statement! This can sound like, “I really feel like you are being an unreasonable jerk!”
7. Keep it brief .
Sometimes what we have to say gets lost if we use too many words. It helps to stay brief and allow the other person to respond before going on too long.
8. Stick to one subject at a time.
Many people have stifled their unresolved issues to the point that when we bring up something, they realize that they too have some things they want to throw into the mix. It can help to agree to get back to that later, but to resolve one issue at a time.
9. Allow the other person to have their response and feelings.
Allowing someone the freedom to respond the way they do can be very challenging. It doesn’t mean you can’t ask for what you want, but we are simply not in charge of how they respond.
10. Don’t take it personally.
Remind yourself that however the other person responds, it is not about you, even if you did something that made them mad or hurt. You could do the same exact thing to five different people and they would all respond based on their history and communication skills.
11. Keep speaking your truth.
No matter how the other person responds, even if they are defensive, aggressive or even passive, you can still continue speaking your truth, respectfully!
12. Own your part.
Be open to learning where you may have contributed to the conflict. Be open to apologizing. Sometimes, a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up in an instant if we are willing to say we are sorry.
13. Ask for what you want and need and be open to negotiating.
This may sound simple, but it’s not always easy for people to ask for what they want. Sometimes the other person will say yes, sometimes no, and sometimes we need to negotiate. In any case, you can continue to practice the language of respectful communication.
14. Accept that the other person’s needs and wants are as important as yours.
Most of us want the other person to see it our way. But when we truly care about someone, we need to know what they feel and need, even if it’s not the viewpoint we were hoping for.
So if it’s scary and hard and the other person’s response is unknown, why bother speaking up? One of the main reasons is that when we are stuffed with unresolved issues we often use substances over them, feel depressed over them and cannot get our needs met because of them. And it is not possible to have intimate and healthy relationships without there being some glitches. It’s just not real. It’s not real for it to be 70 degrees with a light breeze every day, and it’s not real for relationships to go smoothly all the time. There are going to be glitches and we can get better at dealing with them. The key is to look at your part without being a doormat, and to speak your truth without being aggressive.
Now, this doesn’t mean we must express our every thought. Sometimes we express what we are feeling to someone else who makes us feel safe, and not the person directly. Sometimes we are able to work through it and truly let it go, and sometimes we need to find a way to say it or to write it in order to be clear and resolved.
It can help, if you are new at this, to let the person know and ask them to please be patient with you. Fortunately we don’t have to do it perfectly, and we can always ask for a do-over or come back to something if we need to. That’s why we call it ongoing communication.
Therapist and author Dan Wile writes, “A fight is never more than a sentence away. By the same token, intimacy is never more than a sentence away.”