What to Say When You Want to Be Honest

I grew up in a polite family. Good manners. Please and thank you and never be rude. Allow people to save face and keep things smooth. Try to get people to like you. And don't make other people upset or feel uncomfortable. This is all perfectly fine until I have something I want to say that might bother someone. Then I've stuck with a choice between being a nice, polite human being, or being rude. As you already know, sometimes you have to speak up even if people aren't going to like what you have to say. It's in your best interest, it's often in the other person's best interest, and if it is a person you love, it's in the best interest of your relationship. And with people you don't love, it's often necessary to speak up or else be a welcome-mat for the world.

So I have learned to speak up, and these three principles really helped:

Say what you liked.
Say what you feel.
Say what you want.

Specific instructions are better than vague instructions. "Speak up" is kind of vague, but these three principles are nice and specific. Say what you feel and say what you want. Those are not the only two things there are to say, but they are the two most difficult to say and most likely to be avoided. Piping up about an opinion is pretty easy. But saying, "I feel annoyed," is much more difficult. And saying what you want is difficult too, at least some of the time.

But all this needs to be balanced by acknowledging what you liked. There's not enough acknowledgment going around, and that's one of the reasons feelings and wants aren't taken very well.

When you let the people in your life know what you liked, you give yourself some slack that you can use when you have something to say that's not so pleasant. It's like putting money in the bank that you can later write a check against. If you've put enough money in the bank, you can write the check without creating a problem. But if you haven't put enough money in there, and you write a check, it makes for trouble.

Say what you liked. Then you're not putting a negative into an empty space, you're putting it into an at least partially full space, and there is enough positive feeling that you can be a little negative and still have some positive left.

Or to put it a little more concretely, if you know I appreciate this and that about you, and then I say I'm angry with you, you'll take it better than if I never said a nice word to you and then I say I'm angry with you. That's an extreme example, but can you see the difference?

And notice that it is say what you liked, not say what you like. It's speaking about the past. Feel free to say what you like, but realize that is the equivalent of saying what you want, and is entirely different from an acknowledgment. "I like your hair like that," can be construed as saying, "I want you to wear your hair like that in the future."

And say what you liked that they did. If you compliment people about how they look, you make them self-conscious when you look at them. Plus, you're only really complimenting them on their genetic inheritance. They didn't have much to do about how they look. It isn't a personal achievement. It took no good intent on their part. No effort was involved. There's nothing to really be proud of. Vain maybe, but not proud.

If you say what you like about what someone is, it puts pressure on them to meet your expectations. "You are always so positive," you say to your employee. Now if the employee has a bad day the next day, he's going to have a difficult time being honest about it. He'll need to hide it and pretend he is what you think he is since you appreciate it so much. If manipulation is what you're trying to do, fine. But if you want people to feel appreciated, say what you liked about something they did.

There are several good side-effects to speaking up about what you liked. First of all, people will like you more. Second, those people will be more likely to do more of what you liked because they know you appreciated it. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it keeps your mind on the lookout for what you liked.

A lot of times we just miss things. People are all around doing things for you and sometimes you hardly pay any attention. How do I know? Because it is human nature. People don't have to do those things for you. Even if they work for you, they don't have to do those things so cheerfully. This method helps you pay attention to the good things in your life, and that benefits you directly. It feels good to pay attention to the good stuff. It just makes life more pleasant.


John Gottman, Ph.D., author of the Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, is a innovative researcher. He interviewed and studied more than 200 couples for 20 years now, videotaped them while they had arguments, and hooked them up to blood-pressure measuring devices heart-rate monitors while they argued. And he's found some interesting and useful facts about relationships. For example, when an argument gets a complaint out in the open, that can be one of the best things a couple can do for their relationship.

Another important thing Gottman discovered is that people who fight intensely and people who argue calmly and rationally and even people who avoid arguing whenever they can — they can all be successful in marriage (that is, successfully avoid divorce, which is one very measurable outcome Gottman uses as a marker of success). The thing that really matters is how they argue or even if they argue. What matters is the ratio of positive to negative words and actions. If there are intense negative feelings and actions and words, there must be enough positive feelings and actions and words to counter it. There needs to be enough smiling, touching, laughing, compliments, etc., to make up for it.

How much is enough? Believe it or not, Gottman knows the answer to that with a lot of precision. One of the advantages of his ingenious experiments is the precision it allows. The ratio of positive to negative needs to be five to one or better. As Gottman writes:

The magic ratio is 5 to 1. As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage was likely stable over time. In contrast, those couples who were heading for divorce were doing far too little on the positive side to compensate for the growing negativity between them.

Say what you liked. Often. Pick up on little things and say them out loud. Not as a form of manipulation to get them to do it again, but as a thank you, as an appreciation for it, like you might appreciate good music or a beautiful painting. Just express your pleasure: "That was nice." "I liked that." "Remember yesterday when you were nice to me when I was in a bad mood? Thank you for that. I know you didn't have to do it, and it made a difference to me." Little things. Don't save it up for big things. Give it away constantly. Keep your eyes open and look for opportunities. They are there. And they'll be there more obviously the more you look for them, both because your attention is tuned to them and also because people tend to do more of what gets appreciated and less of what doesn't get noticed.


Say what you liked is about the past. Say what you feel is about right now. And say what you want is about the future.

When someone you love does something you liked, speak up about it. Let them know you liked it. They may be able to see the smile on your face at the time, but later, bring it up and make sure they are clear you liked what they did. Give credit where credit is due.

I cannot stress this enough: Nonverbal communication is highly overrated. Have you ever heard the statistics about nonverbal communication? Supposedly, 70-80% of a message is transmitted nonverbally, and what gets communicated nonverbally is the most important part of the message. While this may be true and while it may be useful in some contexts, it can also be misleading because the things you say nonverbally are vulnerable to misinterpretation.

For example: Someone gives me an angry look. What did I do that caused the angry look? I don't know. Nonverbal communication is nonspecific and unclear. Was it anger at what I said or did the person remember something that made them angry? Was it really anger? Maybe it was frustration or even indigestion. Words would make it clear.

Every time I've heard those nonverbal statistics, it has been followed by something like this: So be careful that you use the right tone of voice and the right gestures and the right postures and the right facial expressions. In other words, pretend you feel certain about what you're saying, even when you're not. Act sympathetic, even when you're not, because your words alone won't convince anyone. If you are saying something and the content of your words are enthusiastic but your nonverbal communication is boredom, the listener will hear the boredom, not the enthusiasm.

This kind of information may be fine for salespeople or managers at a training seminar (and it may not be fine even there), but when you're talking to your spouse or child, it's deceiving and it doesn't bring you any closer to each other. It's a form of nonverbal lying, and lying doesn't bring people closer. It creates distance. It separates.

I know a commitment to honesty is difficult, and I don't know anyone who has completely mastered it. We live in a world that accepts a certain amount of dishonesty or at least keeping your mouth shut, and in public situations and at work, it is probably appropriate. But when you feel bothered about something with your fifteen year-old son, it only separates you two to cover it up. And you can't get by with just showing the bother on your face. That isn't clear enough. It leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. Words are the only way to make it clear. Not only is nonverbal communication vague, but often what we think we're showing on our face isn't as obvious on the outside as it feels like on the inside.

In an experiment at Dartmouth College, for example, students were videotaped while they watched funny film clips. Then these videotapes of the viewers' faces were shown to others who rated them on how much humor they expressed on their faces, and the students who saw the funny films also rated themselves on how much they thought they expressed their humor. The two didn't match. And even after the funny-film watchers looked at the videotapes of their own faces, they had to agree with the judges: They didn't show as much humor as they thought they had.

Not only are our faces not as expressive as we think they are, but people aren't as good at reading faces as we think they are. In an experiment at Western Virginia University, students were given a test to determine their level of hostility. Then they were shown slides depicting different emotions and were asked to write down what emotion the slide depicted.

The experiment was specifically looking at the distortion of hostility, but it shows a general trend — namely, we think we know what people are feeling, but we are often wrong. In this case, the more hostile the person, the more hostility they read into the pictures. Where a slide may have depicted only disgust, the hostile student saw anger, and slides depicting joy were seen as neutral.

Use words. Nothing can take their place. Say what you liked, say what you feel, say what you want. Be specific. Don't make them guess, because they might guess wrong.

This is one of the most important principles in this section. Concentrate on this one. It will transform your life. No kidding.


Say what you feel. Not how you feel — what you feel. I feel fine is not a feeling. Feelings are not abstractions, and they aren't opinions. I feel that you are a jerk is not a feeling. Anger is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. Sadness. Gladness. I feel relaxed. That's a feeling. My stomach hurts is a feeling. My heart is pounding is a feeling. Feelings are a direct naming of your present experience without any interpretation. Feelings are direct and honest, and sometimes they're the hardest thing to say. One of the things that makes them hard is what I said already: You think it must be completely obvious to the other person what you're feeling. It seems like it should be obvious, but it often isn't, and it's nothing to take a chance with. Say it. Say it in words. Not all the time, and not when it's useless or inappropriate. But when something needs to be said, or when it is important, or when it will make a difference in the future, or when it'll make you more understandable to someone you love, say it.

Be smart about this. It is probably irrelevant to your boss that you are sad — not that your boss is uncaring, but it's simply not relevant to your relationship. Don't get yourself fired just because you're speaking up! This method is mainly for your close friends and family. It's for people you want to have a close relationship with.

Say what you want. And keep in mind you have no right to demand it unless you're a parent or a boss. But being clear about what you want makes relationships work much better. This is so important. We have a tendency to hide what we want because we know the other will try to give us what we want, and we want to give the other what they want, and so the game continues and we end up down the road with neither getting what they want and wondering what happened.

Say what you want and encourage your loved ones to say what they want, and if you need to, work out compromises that make you both happy. You can't do that unless they know what you want.

Here is a fact: You'll get more of you want when you say what you want. Without any increase in people skills, without any finesse at asking, you'll increase the number of times things go your way. Do you feel guilty about that? Fine. Do you need to do something to relieve your guilt? Then do it. Maybe people are helping you get what you want but you're not helping them. That's not right. So help them. Ask them what they want and help them. And let them help you get what you want. That's love, baby, and it makes the world go round. Don't pull back from it, let the good times roll! Say what you liked, say what you feel, say what you want. Speak up.


You can improve your relationships with others, and it will dramatically improve the quality of your experience. You'll feel differently getting out of bed in the morning. Relationships are important. Your relationships with the people you love probably have a greater impact on your happiness than any other one factor in your life.

There are two kinds of therapy that have prove the most effective in experiments: Cognitive and Interpersonal. You can probably understand why cognitive therapy would be so effective at changing your life. It directly aims to change counterproductive thinking patterns. Of course that would make a big difference to a person's mental health.

But interpersonal therapy comes from the point of view that it is the way we communicate to other people that makes us disturbed. If we have lousy habits of interaction with people, we'll get lousy responses from those people, and it'll make us depressed or anxious or angry. It can make us mentally ill.

So what they do in interpersonal therapy is train people to interact with the people in their lives in a healthier way, and it works. The trainees become saner and happier.

Relationships are vital. And even though you may have had great insights before about yourself, it may not have changed the way you've interacted with people. You may have said to yourself, "I need to speak up more with my spouse," but then find yourself right back in old habits. It's hard to change. But what makes it difficult is not the new behavior. Speaking up is not that hard. You talk all the time. Thinking the insight isn't difficult either. What makes change hard is keeping a new thought in mind long enough to remember to do it often enough to form a new habit.

The repetition of the three principles answers that need perfectly and directly.

Repeat the three principles to yourself every day. Repeat them aloud to your children — you'll be laying the foundation for them to learn to do it too. And that communication style will be good for their peace of mind and security. It is a sane way to communicate, and produces a sane environment to live in.

When you want to be honest:

Say what you liked.
Say what you feel.
Say what you want.

Focus only on this one principle until you're very good at it. This will clean up so much of your life, you'll be shocked and amazed!

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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