How To Tell People Things They Don’t Want To Hear

Want communication tips for awkward conversations? This one phrase makes it much, MUCH easier to tell people things they don't want to hear. Click through and find out what it is >>

Friends. Imagine, if you will, the following scenarios:

1. You’re out on the town with your workmates, enjoying a drink at a bar you don’t usually frequent. Out of the corner of your eye, you see your BFF’s boyfriend canoodling with someone who is definitely not your BFF.

There’s no mistaking it – you’re totally sure it’s him, you’re totally sure he’s not ‘just friends’ with this girl, and you’re totally sure your workmate is NOT in an open relationship.

2. You’re about to head out to a party with your sister and she’s wearing something that is deeply, deeply unflattering. The girls at this party are going to give her the sideeye and whisper disparagingly about her.

3. Your roommate is going through The Worst Break Up Ever and in a fit of weakness/drunkenness, she is about to send an email to her terrible ex brokering a peace treaty. This ex cheated on her, shared her sexual proclivities with the internet and is – let’s be honest – is a Grade A Garbage Person.

Obviously (obviously!) you need to say something. But how do you broach these topics without your friend turning her hate/shame/sadness on you?There is no fool proof method. Some of that shame/hate/sadness will probably splash on you in the process of doing the right thing.

There is one phrase that I’ve found helpful in these deeply awkward situations:

“I’d be remiss in my duty as your friend if I didn’t tell you ________”

Here’s why I (think) it works:

It’s bizarrely, hilariously formal

You almost can’t take issue with something that sounds like it’s coming from a contract agreement.

It shows that you take this friendship seriously and you value this person

You’re not being an a-hole when you tell your sister that dress isn’t great. You’ve got her best interest in mind.

It’s non-confrontational

When you say this, your friend (hopefully) won’t interpret it as “Your boyfriend’s a loser and therefore you’re a loser for being with him” or “You’re a slut with cheap, tacky taste in clothing.” Hopefully, they’ll hear “I care about you enough to tell you the thing you need to hear.”Again, this is not foolproof.

Good friend = saying 'I'd be remiss in my duty as your friend if I didn't tell you _______' Click To Tweet

I cannot guarantee your friend will react to your comments with hugs and exclamations of appreciation. But it’s slightly more likely than if you tell her that that dress makes her look like a ho.

Do you have any methods for telling people things they don’t want to hear?

P.S. I totally stole this method from my own BFF who used it on me! And I didn’t get defensive, which is kind of a miracle in itself!

photo credit fredrick kearney jr //cc

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  1. Ellie Di

    That's such a great phrase to tackle this kind of tricky situation. While nothing is ever guaranteed, I'm with you that the strangeness and non-confrontational-ness are perfect for trying to make that awkward segue. Great idea!

  2. Give me 30 days

    No one has ever tried to use that sort of thing on me. I think we're all just scared of "hurting" each other's feelings if we do tell so we let each other find out for ourselves about the consequences. Thanks for the tip.

  3. Darcie

    i never thought about how formal it is to actually say that, i just wanted to use 'remiss' as a vocabulary word 😉 BTW, it also works for nice things like, "I would be remiss as your friend if I didn't tell you how AWESOME it will be when you get your butt back here!!"

  4. Rachael

    I once had to tell my sister that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and this phrase certainly would have come in handy. Thankfully, she took it better than I expected and was glad I told her. But boy, did it suck!

  5. katie d.

    I think that's a great way to put it…Sometimes I say something along the lines of "you might want to consider…" or "have you considered the possibility…." but sometimes it sounds passive aggressive, which is not the goal at all!

  6. ChristaLouWho

    So, I had a friend use this line with me YESTERDAY. For serious. And, you know? He was right.

  7. Brandi

    I used the line in college on a sorority sister similar to your situation #1. End result? She and the guy are married with two kids and I'm not their favorite person. The lesson? Now I make sure that the other person values our friendship as much as I do. So…no great loss, right?

  8. Kelsi

    Recently I found myself in this situation twice, and each yielded very different results:

    The first is a friend who went back to college to pursue a degree in a career field he didn't like, works at a job he deeply hates, and lives in a flat he doesn't want to live in with a girl he doesn't want to be with. He told me that's just "the way it is." I lovingly but firmly told him that was untrue. He didn't like me challenging him to break out of a mediocre existence, but later told me I was right and that he was grateful.

    The second was a guy I went on a date with. We had a good time but I've been going on several first dates with several guys and wasn't looking for anything serious. When he started texting me every day (and then messaging me on Facebook asking if I received the texts) I had to tell him (again) that I was not looking for anything serious and that I wasn't interested in going out again. He became very angry and wrote some unkind words. I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but I think it would have been far worse to avoid the conversation and lead him on unnecessarily for weeks.

    There are consequences to every confrontation, but just because it's the right thing to do doesn't mean it's going to be easy or comfortable. This society has been conditioned to fear or avoid any sort of discomfort. I don't know if it's the "politically correct" disease or social ineptitude thanks to the explosion of tech networking, but I believe honesty is still the best policy… even if it's not always what you WANT to hear.

  9. JoAnna

    Solid advice, but am I the only one who would never approach a friend about her boyfriend cheating without approaching the boyfriend first? It seems weirdly gossipy to me that you'd go straight to the friend without approaching the boyfriend at the bar and see how he reacts to seeing you in that situation… at the very least, I think he'd be obligated to introduce you to the girl. Then when you talk to your friend, you can say, "I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that I saw Freddy at the bar the other night, and the whole thing seemed fishy. Does he really have a blond cousin named Sally?"

  10. Katie and Reuben

    That's such a nice and gentle, yet honest way of putting it! I likey.

    Katie x

  11. sara star

    First off, I have decided consciously to stop being friends with people who can't accept the truth.

    Secondly, I always say what I say to my friends of the truth out of the utmost kindness. If there is any selfishness in what I want to say, I don't say it and I spend time examining myself first. I must also examine myself to see if I am a qualified judge of the truth.

    Do I know whether my friend is in a open relationship with her boyfriend or not? Are we close enough that she would tell me that stuff?

    As for my friends dress, I would tell her about the dress's defect, not about how it looked on her. I would say, that dress is showing a bit of your butt cleavage. Perhaps she wants to wear a sexy dress, but if the dress is just a little too long she might resort to some tape to keep it up. As for the friend about to drunk dial, I would beg her to wait until morning–see if she felt the same way. It is always worth it to sleep on this stuff.

    Your intro statement is impeccable, and I am going to add it to my standards.

  12. Anonymous

    Even though these comments above are 3 years old, the topic is still totally relevant, and will always be relevant. So here I go….

    Many good thoughts above. I especially like 'sara star's' comment about examining oneself to make sure you're not confronting out of selfish motivation. Also, when it's a 'big deal' situation, I always wonder if I should just speak my opinions about it once and then leave the person to do what he wants, or whether I should keep trying to convince him. After all, if I saw him about to go over a cliff, I wouldn't just calmly tell him once and then let him fall. I'd try and try again to show him what he was about to do.

    My situation is as follows. First off, I'll set the scene a bit. Me=gay guy. My friend=also a gay guy. Both of us over 40 and been best friends for 9 years. The problem, as I see it, is that my best friend is actively pursuing a 'relationship' (not just a friendship) with somebody he met on holiday in Calilfornia. This guy seems, according to my friend's description, like a nice enough guy. The most obvious problems, as I see them, are that: 1) This love interest lives in a different country (the U.S.A.—we’re Canadians); 2) The U.S. guy has *just* broken up with his former partner of 'X' number of years (a longstanding relationship, apparently). And by "just" I mean my best friend and he were already pursuing a relationship while the guy was still in the process of breaking up; 3) My friend has had numerous partners over the years, most of whom were psychologically unavailable for various reasons, and all of whom eventually dumped him. One had just come out–hadn't even ever dated another guy before in his life; one had obvious committment issues; etcetera, etcetera…. 4) My friend falls ‘in love’ very quickly—too quickly, judging from his past relationships.

    I told my friend calmly and rationally why I think he's making a big mistake here, and he's completely ignoring me. He and this guy call each other every day and have long talks on the phone; they've already had a rendezvous in some holiday destination; in a month my friend is flying to the guy's (new) home to spend a week with him; the guy is then flying to our city the following month to spend time here…..good grief. The whole thing feels like some torrid teenage infatuation thing.

    I don't want my friend to get hurt (again–for the sixth time) when the realities of this new guy and his situation and my friend's total lack of judgement again rear their ugly heads. But I hate feeling his anger when I broach the topic. Plus, it seems to be doing no good.

    Always difficult to tell people things they don’t want to hear. Even moreso when it’s an important issue.

  13. Lisa

    This template is absolutely fantastic, even if it’s for a freelance client. I have severe anxiety, which leads this to be an even more difficult situation. You’d be able to tell I’m nervous because I would be red in the face, sweating, and trembling violently. It sucks being me when that happens but at least it shows I’m being honest about it. (Well…unless the person thinks I’m lying because of the way my body is reacting in the heat of that moment.)

  14. Irving Hayes

    Sometimes people are aggressive and not want to hear from you any negative comment about them. So, tell those things with good way that they easily understand you. You give good suggestion about telling the things to people that they want to listen.

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