how to tell a friend he’s screwing up

Donald Miller and i both got in some trouble a while back for blogs we wrote.  his was How to Live a Great Love Story (that he has since deleted for reasons unknown to me) and mine was hypersensitivity, slutty behavior and Donald Miller.  it was a response to his post.

the Cliff’s Notes are this: if a girl is out there throwing herself at men and wearing clothes that barely conceal her naughty bits, that’s slutty behavior.  Donald and i both championed calling a spade a spade.  the point being sometimes you have to be willing to expose ugly behavior with ugly language.  but you also have to be willing to offer help and hope after you get their attention.

here are my suggestions on how to kindly punch someone in the face:

1.  don’t be a coward – if you are going do this, you just have to let the punch fly straight and true.  delivering a blow to someone who really needs it, isn’t tricky or subtle.  no faking with the left and blindsiding with the right.  you know how in the movies someone will be busting out the crazy fast marshall arts moves and the opponent will just stand there then punch Fists of Fury in the face?  it’s like that.  the more subtle you try to be, the less effective it is.  you will lose respect points if you don’t approach the situation with confidence.

2.  don’t pull the punch – it is not cruelty to expose bad/destructive behavior by calling it what it is.  i once told a friend who had just been hit by her boyfriend that if she stayed with him and he hit her child (he wasn’t the boy’s father), that was on her.  sounds mean, i know.  but it’s the truth.  people who fall into patterns of bad behavior are very good at blaming others for their circumstances and sometimes even thrive on being the victim.  you’re not a very good friend if you let them do that.

3.  timing is everything – the time to talk to someone about the choices he is  making that is either hurting himself or others is when it happens.  if you see it happening, say something.  if he comes to you and opens the door to conversation about the behavior, say something.  be careful about setting up a time to talk.  this can make a person feel not only put on the spot, but embarrassed and defensive.  it’s always best to enter into an “organic” conversation.  he will be more open to hearing what you have to say.

4.  be prepared – think about what you want to say and why you need to say it.  this will give you some of the confidence you need.  but even more than that, make sure you have established yourself as a friend.  you must have a relationship of trust before anything can be accomplished.  and if it’s something you feel is too big for you, get some wise counsel from someone with more experience.  kind of the whole point of this exercise is that nobody has to do life alone.  we all need help at some point.

5.  follow through – have a plan to help him get past the problems and stick with it.  it’s even fine to confess you don’t have the answers, but that you are going to help find them.  people that i have had to confront, always know that even though i’ve just punched them with my right hand, my left is going to be right behind it to help them back up again.

sometimes, to be a real friend, you have to shine a light on the dark places.  my friend didn’t want to accept the fact that the relationship she was in was abusive.  she was trying to convince herself it would be all right.  that it would get better.  and she was desperately ignoring the fact that her son could be in danger.  so it was up to me to yank back the curtain in a way that shocked her out of her denial.  i got, what some would consider, insensitive and mean.  but it worked.  i helped get her into a woman’s shelter and we’re still friends.

it is possible to expose destructive behavior or bad choices without condemnation.  your friend is going to feel some shame, no doubt about it, but if he trusts you, he’s going to understand that you are looking out for him and you can be counted on to help as much as is needed.  the shame will come from within, not because you are judging him.

what you don’t want is for something to go so far that your friend or someone else gets seriously hurt (either emotionally or physically) and he looks at you and says, “why didn’t you say something sooner?”

have you ever looked the other way when a friend was doing things that could be harmful to himself or others?

have you ever said anything?

have you ever had anyone in your life who was willing to tell you the truth about your own behavior?

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13 comments on “how to tell a friend he’s screwing up

  1. Evan says:

    Great thoughts!
    Totally agree here: “you must have a relationship of trust before anything can be accomplished.”

    It’s a tough situation, because you don’t want to hurt the relationship. But ultimately, if you really love someone you need to help them stop destroying themselves. Approaching them with this mindset shows compassion more than judgment, and people tend to respond better.

    You also need to approach each person differently, because some will respond much better to bluntness than others.

    I’ve also found it helpful when you admit to some of your own faults.

    Usually these discussions never go well, but a few days/weeks/months later the person tells me they are now extremely grateful because they needed to hear it.

  2. Ed Blonski says:

    From your blog to Joe Paterno’s mail box.

  3. Bethany says:

    My big Punch of Truth was a Christian friend who started dating a non-Christian. We talked about scriptures that we *agree* point to this not being a good relationship. We talked about all the ways it could go wrong. We talked about all the conflicts of values that might come up. So why, six years later, is she raising their kid alone?

    Obviously, she made her own decision, but I also found that among her family and friends, I was the only one who didn’t support the relationship. Everyone else agreed that there were no good Christian guys and that Judaism was close enough and blah, blah, blah. So, bold as I was, her supporters cancelled me out. But I’m still happy I said all I did. If I hadn’t, I would always wish I could go back. As it is, I made my friend confront every objection, and the results of sloughing those off are hers to bear.

    As for friends who hold *me* accountable, my closest friends are great at this. I know I can depend on them to tell me if something’s unfair or if I really was being stupid/jerky/thoughtless. And they receive the same from me. We have a near-perfect balance of respect and disregard for each others’ feelings.

  4. Kp says:

    I just dished out the difficult talk recently to a guy who is dating a woman who is nothing but red flags. At first the response was appreciative and there was some solid conversation about how they understand the red flags. It didn’t stop them from seeing the person, and after talking to Red Flag they have made the decision that we can’t talk about any things in our personal life. He also doesn’t bring his girlfriend out now that he knows there isn’t a single one of his friends who likes her. Somehow, it will all work out, mostly because I know he will alienate his friends for now, and even if it’s for two years that he does this, we will all be here when he realizes the depth of the crazy well he fell into.

    A for being on the receiving end, I had a very intense relationship when I was younger where both of our crazy was like magnets. He wasn’t trustworthy and didn’t treat me well, and it didn’t matter. All of my friends told me about it, but it didn’t matter. The only thing that worked was my best friend (after the fourth time trying to make it work) telling me that when it blew up in my face this time, she wasn’t going to listen. It sounds cold, but I knew how the system worked, and as long as my friends were there after, I knew I could bounce back. I knew what was happening everytime. This was the time when I stopped and said, okay, it’s not worth it.

  5. thekateway says:

    This is solid stuff, as per usual.

    The only thing I’d add for myself is that it’s important to make sure that the behavior is indeed destructive and not just something I personally find annoying.

    Does that make sense?

  6. Bekah Hope says:

    #3 – YES, YES and amen! I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve had someone “set up a meeting time” with me to discuss something, and each time it’s taken every ounce of willpower to not go in there with guns blazing in self-defense. This is a totally wrong approach to confrontation and should be avoided. I love my friends, and I love that they are willing to speak into my life, but bad timing has caused more than one altercation that could’ve otherwise been avoided.

    Thank you very much for pointing this out.

  7. DTDorrin says:

    I’m guessing that just forwarding this post to someone without an explanation other than “thought this was interesting” doesn’t count as not being a coward?

  8. asoulwalker says:

    I’ll never forget when one of my best friends looked me in the eye and said, “you should break up with her. I don’t like her for you.” He was six months ahead of my other friends saying the same thing. I wish I had listened to him then. He was a good friend and I trusted him. Now I trust him even more.

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