“Is it true; is it kind, or is it necessary?” –Socrates
These days, everyone seems out of sorts—cranky, irritable, stressed out, and sometimes downright mean. We say or do things that we later regret, but can’t take back. We add to other people’s stress with our impatience. We infect those around us with our bad moods.
It’s time to take a deep breath and a step back, and remind ourselves that we are only minor characters in other people’s stories. We have no idea what tragedy lurks behind the social veneer, what hurting heart hides behind that display of bravado or anger as we rush through our days and scroll through our social media. We compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides, never really knowing or understanding the people around us.
Let’s instead infect people with kindness and compassion, rather than responding or escalating when someone is being ugly or cranky. Pausing before reacting to ask ourselves, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” and, unless we can answer YES to all three, choosing to say nothing.
Is it true?
Can what you want to say be independently verified? Have you checked your facts? Made sure you understand the full story? Are there other interpretations that are equally valid?
Before saying something critical or giving constructive feedback, especially in an emotional situation, try asking questions.
Before reacting to the other person’s emotions or comments, ask how they might be right, even if they expressed their view in a less-than-helpful manner. Avoid injecting your own negative emotions into your response. (Sometimes, the best response is no response.)
Is it kind?
Does what you want to say serve the greater good? Can you say it in a way that gives the other person room to grow without damaging their psyche or your relationship? Are your motivations pure? Will what you say be with the highest and best intention for yourself and the other people involved? Did the other person ask for your advice or feedback? How would you feel if someone else gave you that feedback?
Actively seek out positive traits, actions, communication. Give specifics when complimenting someone. For example, “I loved your talk,” is nice, but less helpful than, “You did a great job of keeping me engaged by having visually interesting slides that reinforced your points, and a compelling story that got me excited about your topic.”
Be both honest and compassionate when giving feedback. For example, “your presentation sucked,” might be honest, but is definitely not helpful or kind. Instead, you could say, “It would improve your presentation if you had a more clear agenda, made your slides less busy, and narrowed your topic to 2-3 clear takeaways.”
Is it necessary?
Will someone be harmed if you don’t say anything? Conversely, would it make someone’s day if you do say it? Does the other person need the feedback in order to grow, or in order to understand the consequences of their behavior? Does it facilitate a good relationship with the other person? Are you presenting the feedback professionally, or are you injecting your own emotions into the situation?
In the case of injustice, we have a moral and ethical obligation to speak up and, if it is within our power to do so, to protect the victim from further abuse. We can do this without hating the haters, and without being violent or ugly ourselves. Responding to ugliness with more ugliness, while sometimes cathartic, only escalates the situation and damages us in ways we might not recover from. It takes creativity and courage to respond with compassionate honesty (“loving kindness” as the Dalai Lama puts it).
Despite the poor examples being shown by many public figures, it IS possible to disagree without being ugly about it. It is possible to provide necessary, honest feedback in a way that is also kind and compassionate. In fact, it is often more effective to do so. When you are angry and ugly when giving feedback, it immediately makes the other person defensive, even if that feedback is true. They can’t hear your valid concern if it’s wrapped in negativity or general ugliness.
Let’s go forth and be kind.