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We all know someone who’s got “the gift of the golden tongue.” No matter what kinds of words are tumbling from their lips — a wedding toast, a business proposition, or even a string of criticism — it just sounds so darn good.
I’m fascinated by the way that certain people always seem to know just what to say — not to mention, how and when to say it. I recently asked an unlikely trio of experts — a psychotherapist, a lawyer and a jazz musician — for their personal take on compassionate communication, under pressure.
Their tips are particularly useful for times when you’re hurt, confused, stressed or primed for full-blown nuclear detonation.
Read ‘em before you need ‘em. (And save yourself several lifetimes of drama.)
1. Temper flaring? Pause and say: “I see you.”
Got some brisk criticism to deliver?
Watching a friend make the same mistake, ovvvver and over?
When every cell in your body is screaming, "STOP! You’re doing it WRONG!" it can be difficult to dial down your frustration.
In those moments, remember that your job is to ensure that the person you’re talking to feels seen, heard and appreciated — not slapped, skewered and charbroiled.
If the other person feels cornered and attacked, their body will shift into defense-mode and they won’t absorb a word of what you have to say.
Dr. Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist, author and Chief Romance Officer at LoveFilter.com, gave me a classic reminder:
“Begin by stating what you like about the person you’re going to criticize. Then, try using an encouraging statement like:
I can see what you want to accomplish here. You can be more effective if you…
It looks like you’re having a problem. I think you’ll have an easier time if you…
Follow Dr. Tessina’s lead, and wrap your criticism in a warm tortilla of encouragement. You’ll feel better about what you’ve said, and they’ll be inspired to do better.
2. Got rough news? Don’t be cruel — but don’t put it off.
I once broke it off with a beau who had just left his (terrible) job, been kicked out of his apartment, and barely had two nickels to rub together. I tried to speak compassionately, but in the end, my rejection felt like the proverbial nail in the coffin.
“Bad timing,” he grimaced.
At the time, I felt incredibly guilty. Surely, I should have waited to deliver the bad news!
“Not necessarily,” says my friend Monique Fortenberry, a lawyer and senior executive in Washington DC.
She told me:
“When you’ve got bad news, the best thing you can do is to deliver your message objectively and concretely.
Don't beat around the bush. Be timely — procrastinating hurts everyone and makes things worse, not better.”
To quote another friend, the bestselling author and spiritual seeker Danielle LaPorte:
“Tell the truth and tell it fast.”
3. Frustrated? Swap “confrontation” for “curiosity.”
My brother Ben Wendel, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician and composer, often deals with (how shall I put this delicately?) “passionate artist-types,” in his line of work.
His top tip?
“Instead of using confrontational language, ask a question that invites the other person to address the issue at hand, themselves.
I'm curious as to what you had in mind when you chose to do X. Can you walk me through your thinking?
With this approach, it’s all about your tone. If your “curiosity” is saturated in sarcasm, the person you’re talking to will know it, and react accordingly.
But if you’re genuinely curious about the other person’s reasoning, and you’re willing to shelve your opinions for a few moments, go for it.
Two sentences to save the day:
In the heat of the moment, it can be tough to remember to pause, deliver a compliment before criticizing, avoid a parental tone, use empowering language, speak quickly (but not too quickly) and sincerely express your curiosity.
(And did I mention smiling, uncrossing your arms, taking seven deep breaths and twirling around counter-clockwise, three times?)
If nothing else, just memorize this two-sentence savior:
I’m feeling really upset right now, because I care deeply about what’s happening here — and I care deeply about you. So: may I speak frankly?
No matter what happens next, you’re off to a smooth (and compassionate) start.