How To Tell A Friend The Harsh Truth

​An expert in difficult conversations schools us on the toughest ones



How To Tell A Friend The Harsh Truth

There’s a reason the truth is often saddled with adjectives like “cold” and “hard.” It can be hard to hear, and even harder to say. Picture telling a buddy that, yes, he’s balding. Or that his drinking got him uninvited from your wedding. Or that you saw his wife with someone else. Delivering this kind of news hurts people, and it can make you the bad guy. You’re there to help - or because you feel like you owe it to your friend to keep it real - but the results might leave you feeling like you never should have brought it up.

But the thing is, the truth is the truth. There’s no changing it. “There’s nothing that will turn bad news into good news,” says Douglas Stone, co-author of Difficult Conversations and Lecturer on Law at Harvard. He literally wrote the book on dealing with challenging interactions, whether they’re tricky negotiations, rough feedback, or run-ins with unreasonable people who make your life harder. He took us through the seven tactics you should know before telling a friend the harsh truth. So before you do, read this.

Just Spit It Out

You've heard the saying, "don't beat around the bush." People know when you're about to drop a bomb on them, so don't keep them in suspense. And if they can't tell what's coming - even more reason to get down to it.

"Too often, we deliver the bad news halfway through a conversation," says Stone. "We 'ease in' because we don't want to hurt the other person. But it's better to put the bad news up front. Otherwise, people feel ambushed."

If it helps, you can start with something like, "This isn't easy to talk about..." Then say what's on your mind.

Oh, And Keep It Short

This isn't a place to unload all the feelings you've had about the person for the last few years. And if you tend to talk a lot when you're nervous, beware of peppering them with details.

"People can only take in so much information at one time," says Stone. "Especially if it's bad news. If someone seems upset, or appears to have trouble processing it, don't pile on information. Pause, answer questions, and ask if they want to talk more later."

Share The Impact On You

If you’ve ever watched “Intervention” on A&E, you know this one. When talking about something another person did, the way to get it across is to say how it affected you.

For instance, if your friend has trouble controlling his drinking, it's best to say something like, "When you had all those drinks, I was worried about you and it made me uncomfortable." That's the impact. In contrast, "you made a total fool of yourself last night," is a judgment.

"No one can argue with you about the impact," says Stone, "but they can argue about a judgment."

Listen To The Reaction

Too often, we say our piece and run away as fast as we can. That’s not a conversation.

"Make sure they hear you and understand your point, and once they do, work hard to understand their reaction," says Stone.

An important note: understanding their reaction (“C’mon, I didn’t drink too much. I was just having fun!”) is different than agreeing with them. But when you understand how they see it, you can reinforce the impact in a way that makes sense to them. For instance, “If you think I’m over-stating things, the impact was bad enough that there was a conversation about not inviting you to the next party.”

Remember, It’s Not About You

As humans, we like to be liked. But that can get in the way.

"If we sense the other person is feeling hurt, we'll back off, or hedge, or deliver a message that is far from clear," says Stone. "And now the person doesn't know what we were trying to share."

In the end, you can't control how another person reacts - and you shouldn't try.

"The way I think about it is this," says Stone. "My job is to deliver the news as clearly and empathetically as possible. Their job is to react however they react.”

Disaster? Try Again Later

The person might not believe you. They might say you're overreacting. Or call you a liar to your face.

In that case, try again later. "The second conversation - and third or fourth - is often crucial," says Stone. "They may disagree in the moment, but be in a better place to understand your view tomorrow."

Ask Yourself, "Will It Help?"

We all know at least one person who, instead of dreading these conversations, seems to thrive on them. This person considers it their “duty” to lay a truth smackdown on those around them, and seems to relish it a little too much.

Don’t be like that. Before you do anything, ask yourself, what do I hope to get out of this?

"Before delivering bad news or offering feedback, you should ask yourself, what’s my purpose?" says Stone. "If you don't stand a reasonable chance of achieving that purpose, then you shouldn't be having that conversation."


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