He who dares not to offend can’t be honest. -- Thomas Paine
Truth without love is too hard. Love without truth is too soft. - John Stott
A group of colleagues and I were recently talking about somebody who did something really stupid. Our colleague, let’s call him Bob, made assumptions about someone he was meeting for the first time. He blurted it out in an assumptive way at a business gathering. In so doing, Bob totally discredited himself, possibly lost a friend and a potential client. Apparently, Bob does this from time to time! As we were describing Bob’s dilemma, someone said, “Yeah, that was really stupid.” Another friend in the group paused and looked at me, sort of taken aback. Another so politely spoke up, “Bless his heart,” she said. Then she added: “That’s our way of saying that somebody is stupid.” In other words, “We don’t say stupid in the South because we’re too nice.”
And that’s how the story goes, doesn't it?
For many Southerners who are used to a regional code that prioritizes politeness over directness, a direct manner of communicating can be off-putting. Do you find that to be true? People in the South are really nice. But sometimes the truth is lost in the niceness. This conversation led me to ask myself a few questions: Does being nice override telling the truth? How can we respect and love people in a way that allows us to communicate the truth to them?
Have you noticed regional differences in the way people communicate in the U.S.? Maybe because I grew up overseas, I am acutely aware of the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) communication patterns we rely on based on which U.S. region, or sub-community within a region, we are from. There’s been a lot written about cultural communication patterns and the effects they have on our work and life, a topic which I find fascinating. The book The Culture Map by Erin Meyer takes a closer look at the ways culture dictates how we work, including how we communicate with our colleagues. And there’s the famous Outliers chapter by Malcolm Gladwell, “Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” where he examines communication patterns in Korean pilots and how that correlates with crash rates.
I live in the American South, so I am most fascinated with the slower, polite, and at times indirect manner of speaking I encounter here. For example, I hear that phrase “Bless their heart” often, and I’ve learned to read between the lines. Even though I’m not a native Southerner, I have also learned and appreciated a slower speed of communication as it gives me a chance to be thoughtful about what I say (and that's always helpful). I’ve learned over the years to check my tone, but sometimes I do forget. Even as I’ve assimilated to these “Southern” communication patterns, I have to guard against watering down the truth of what I am trying to say. I find that a culture that values niceness above all can guide most people away from telling the truth over time. I believe that where truth meets kindness, that becomes an act of love.
Giving Truth the Loving Way
Through my years of leadership I have had to learn how to communicate truth to teams and individuals. I have done it poorly at times, and well at other times. Clearly one of the key differentiators for me has been the desire to listen carefully and decipher timing, mood, and the setting as I ask someone’s permission to give feedback. Imagine our friend Bob in the story above, and imagine that I approach Bob to ask if he is open to discussing something I have observed about him. Imagine Bob’s response: “I just don’t know if I I am in the mood to hear it.” Or he might say, “I only want to hear it if it’s good.” Both responses are requests to pause.
If I respect the request to pause, then Bob’s response could lead us to a dialog about what was happening with him at the moment. We could agree on a time to resume the conversation, which will give me time to prepare what I want to say. Our next meeting would involve affirming Bob as someone who brings great value in many ways, and also highlighting how making and communicating assumptions about people could be hurtful to them and to him.
Then, I would ask Bob to spend some time evaluating my impressions of him and the feedback I gave. I would ask him to think about our talk and plan to meet again in a week to discuss. Allowing space to process helps slow the dialog down so Bob can be thoughtful and not reactive in his response. Giving him time to process is also one way of imparting kindness by not demanding a response.
Intentional Steps Toward Truth and Love
When we talk about our cultural communication differences, we could do well to merge the good parts. For those of us from regions where people speak truth very directly, what would happen if we were intentional about choosing kind, loving and thoughtful words? And for those in regions that avoid truth in favor of politeness, what if we decided to speak the truth rather than sugar coating it? That would be a culture I’d like to live in and indeed it’s possible if we are intentional about developing the skills to do both, be loving and be truthful!
How do we get started?
First, do you even want to communicate the truth, or would you rather be nice?
Once you make that decision, start with yourself. Unless you experience truth and love with yourself it’s hard to give to someone else. Do you speak truth and love in your own life? Are you too quick to judge your own choices and actions? Are you kind to yourself, or harsh? Would you rather not talk about yourself at all? Do you even want to know what people have to say about your actions? Are you kind to yourself when you reflect on your own choices? You won’t be able to deliver truth and love to others if you can’t give it to yourself.
Take a lesson in Southern dialog: Be intentional about slowing it down and listening. You can’t be rushed when you do any of this. Take your time. You have to be able to pause, and if the person you’re talking to is not ready to receive it, create a climate that’s not threatening. Allow time and space for other people to receive the information rather than responding quickly. Don’t be demanding in offering the information, but offer it freely. Schedule time to follow up.
And the next time you hear someone say, “Bless their heart,” why not ask for more information? It might just open up a very interesting dialog and encourage your neighbors and colleagues to speak more truth, and do it kindly.