True, Kind, Necessary? Rules for Speaking

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Growing up, my sister and I drove my mom crazy for lots of reasons. One of her peeves is that while she taught countless YW and RS lessons, the only thing Angela and I seem to remember is her formula for deciding whether to hold one’s tongue. We came home from church and sat in the kitchen arguing for ages about whether the adage, “Before you speak ask yourself, is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?” was a good rule. Mom was adamant that unless words could pass this triple test, they were best kept to oneself. Angela and I made a case for a two out of three and 30 some years later, it stills feels right. Here is our argument.

I. True & Kind: This is an easy category. Someone does something well. Tell them. There’s a man in my ward that I adore. He does what I call the “insta-thank you.” If a sacrament talk moves him, he whips a note card out of his briefcase and immediately expresses in lovely specifics how your words affected him. Before you make it to the foyer he hands it to you. Sometimes he waits a day and mails it. Let’s be clear. This is NOT necessary but true and kind. It was so meaningful to my husband that he has taken up the practice and has sent kind notes to hotel staff and new deacons and members of the activities committee. I am often amazed at how hungry people are for genuine compliments.

II. Kind & Necessary: This one’s tricky. While I value honesty, there are times when I think other things trump the truth. As a parent you learn this lesson early and often. When a budding chef ventures into the kitchen and makes something they are so proud of, honesty is not your friend. My littlest discovered a few years ago that dandelions were edible so she filled a bowl with them and covered it in ranch dressing and served them to us for dinner. It was Hidden Valley lawn clippings soup. I gagged it down. But seeing the potential over the truth is kind and necessary for growth. And not just for novice chefs or violin players. I have been the recipient of words crafted to validate me when I have been fragile and finding my way. I’m not saying we should blow sunshine up each other’s wahoos 24/7. Ultimately that is NOT kind.  The art is in knowing when it is necessary to bless someone with the most positive version of a situation. The truth can be a sword and should be wielded with caution.

III. Necessary & True: This category can be hardest for me. In Meyers-Briggs speak I am an ENFP. The letter in the third position represents your decision making function. Feelers (F) like me are prone to privileging people’s feeling when faced with decisions while Thinkers (T) put more weight on impersonal facts and principles. When I have to tell someone something that is hard to hear, I need to be sure it’s important they hear it or essential I say it (unless I’m mad at them then all bets are off). As a Mormon woman, this is extra tricky because we are by very definition meant to be kind and nurturing and I find I am not well received when I enter into waters that are neither warm nor fuzzy. I’ve ticked off some of my leaders over the years when I’ve decided to share things I find true and necessary. And I’m not going to deny that the repercussions haven’t stung and made me more cautious. Recently I attended a meeting where the counsel given to the women in attendance felt not only out of touch but potentially harmful. And I said nothing. I justified that I stayed silent not out of fear but futility. I felt like it wouldn’t do any good. Any words of dissent would have been ignored by the speaker. I also rationalized that maybe her words were true for some. Yet I’m a little ashamed of that now. Because the other women in that room who were frustrated might have benefited from knowing they were not alone. I have been so relieved to have others speak up and share alternate viewpoints that either validated mine or allowed me to consider new perspectives. I see now that ultimately my silence was neither true, nor necessary, nor kind.

Despite what my mother thinks, I weigh my words carefully, trying to balance the needs of the individual with what is expedient and what is essential. Because I recognize that words are powerful and can harm as well as heal. But I also know that we can just as easily wound others with our silence.

How do you decide when to speak up and when to stay silent? Is honesty always the best policy? Have you sacrificed honesty for politeness? Do feminists have an added obligation to speak their truth?

 

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17 Responses

  1. EmilyCC says:

    So many interesting thoughts, TopHat!

    I have often sacrificed honesty for politeness, but I’m starting to realize that that doesn’t benefit anyone. I want some praise for keeping my mouth shut, hurtful or wrong information may be being spread, and I can’t have a true friendship with someone I’m not willing to be truthful with.

    I try to do better these days if only because I appreciate the risks people take when they give me honest feedback. I may not like what they say, but it helps me do better because someone was willing to talk to me.

    I’m not a huge fan of that adage either because I feel like if I have to wait for all three of those aspects to come together, would I ever talk? 🙂

  2. Kathryn says:

    Hidden Valley lawn clippings soup–love it! And love this piece. Thanks, Heather.

  3. Caroline says:

    Heather, love this post. I find the third scenario so hard. Often when I am at church and the lesson is going in an “us vs. the world” direction and people outside the church are being written off or things are just so black and white and unnuanced, I feel strongly that I need to say something and offer some nuance. But it’s so hard! I don’t want to derail the teacher. I want to contribute productively, but how to do that when you are coming at it from a different point of view? I think I often let my excessive fear of hurting others’ feelings inhibit me from speaking up and voicing an alternate perspective. I know from much experience that those alternate voices are life-saving for people sitting there wondering if they are the only ones who feel differently. So I guess my question is — how do we speak up, give an alternate perspective, but do so in a kind way?

  4. Emily U says:

    I’m also a proponent of the 2 out of 3 rule. I think when people invoke the 3 out of 3 rule, they are just trying to shut someone up. Like emilycc said, if we needed 3 out of 3, could we ever say anything? Your thoughts on the possible 2 out of 3 combinations are excellent.

  5. Em says:

    I agree on the 2/3 rule, because things that are really necessary to be spoken can feel unkind, even if they aren’t meant to be. It is pretty rare that we communicate something really vital, life and world changing. A lot of what we say might seem unnecessary — chat about our days, checking in, telling experiences.

    I think the rule better applies to things that are potentially unpleasant to talk about, and then maybe it should be 3/3. By that I mean things that might otherwise fall under the topic of gossip. You hear that a young woman in the ward is pregnant, and you know that it is true. But when/why tell others? Only when kindness and necessity dictates — you want to plan a shower, or you want to make sure other leaders are alert to possible bullying or exclusion. The rule works better not so much for guarding every word you say, but for the things you say specifically about other people. I think the “kind” part can also dictate the types of language we use. There is a big difference between saying a girl got knocked up and that a young woman is pregnant/expecting.

  6. Ziff says:

    Interesting! I had only ever heard the two out of three version. Anyway, regarding how I actually try to apply this, I do a pretty poor job. Unfortunately, in person I’m likely to avoid difficult issues (even if necessary and true), while at the same time online I’m sometimes the opposite–saying things that are maybe true (but debatable) but neither kind nor necessary. I wish the two spheres somehow balanced each other out, but I don’t think it really works that way. 🙂

  7. Rachel says:

    I just came back from a reading by Terry Tempest Williams. So much of what she read was from When Women Were Birds, and so much of When Women Were Birds is about blank pages, and what they taught her about the power of silence and the power of speaking. It was so beautiful, and thoughtful.

    I see that same thoughtfulness in your careful consideration of specific situations. Thank you.

  8. Patty says:

    Just sat through a patriotic program for Veteran’s Day that made me cringe. I think I was the only one in my conservative stake who was uncomfortable. I had a few moments with the friend who had written the program and told her I thought it was American exceptionalism on steroids. So, so sorry. Who died and made me queen? Just not necessary. I am now trying to be supportive of my friend however I can after my unfortunate lapse. One of those things that deeds and time have to cure, words will never help. I like all three of the tests.

    • Heather says:

      Oh Patty. It’s so hard for me when I don’t have a safe place to vent. That’s when I open my mouth and watch things fly out that I can’t seem to contain. That program must have been something!

  9. EFH says:

    As a foreigner, I am more direct and honest when it comes to share my opinion with others. I have learned though that sometimes what we want to tell others, needs to come from a kind and necessary place too, especially when it comes to communicating with different people (at different points emotionally, spiritually, economically etc in their lives).

    Speaking from my experience living in US, I learned that often when roommates and others asked for my opinion, they were not prepared for the brutal truth. So I have had to learn to say what I want to say but in a kinder way, and I do think this is important since I am not close with everyone I run into contact with. In addition, the honest truth needs to be said when it is also necessary. For example, I have learned that people are not ready to hear ALL of it at every moment. So it is up to me to give it to them bit by bit as they become stronger and able to face themselves.

    Conclusion – I have learned that just because I was being brutally honest, I still could have chosen kinder words and better moments to say it. And that is why, I like this principle. Because it lets me build trust with the other person. In addition, not everyone is ready all the time to truly face themselves. And that’s why it is important to choose kind words and the right moment. Telling the truth is a process not a moment, especially when considering the insecurities of the person you are dealing with.

    I can see though why many American people might not appreciate this principle. The American culture has many filters that are used when building relationships with others. And many are eager for an honest opinion. But you have to realize that it has to come from the right person at the right time. Otherwise, it would turn into an emotional discussion and the message would loose its relevance and meaning.

    • EFH says:

      What I am trying to say is that the truth is important to be said, but more importantly, it is important to communicate it and that is when the other two qualities matter too. However, it is never easy to do and I completely recognize it. But as with everything in life, it is important to do your best.

      • Heather says:

        I think this varies from culture to culture, absolutely. When I lived in China I had a hard time trying to figure out when my honest opinion was wanted and when I needed to skirt around things. It was fairly different. And I also think there is a gender difference in this. When my son asks me if he looks ok, he wants me to be honest. And my daughters asking the same question are (generally) looking for validation. As you say EFH, we do our best.

  10. Jenny says:

    I love your thoughts on this! It’s given me a lot to think about.

  11. Melody says:

    Wow. Thanks, Heather. All I can say is I’m better than I used to be. I still speak truth at times when I could just as easily let it be. I’ve been guilty of hurting when I was trying to help with my words. But the older I get, the less I feel I NEED to say. Age has its benefits.

    • Melody says:

      Also, in answer to your question, yes, I feel feminists (or anyone who feels called to a particular social duty) are obligated to speak when we might prefer to stay silent. Again, I love this post and thanks for sharing your mom with us.

  12. Pandora says:

    It is weird as I have gotten older that I have become more truthful and less truthful in my communication.

    More truthful in asking questions early on when I sense increasing emotion or feel there is a subtext I don’t understand. I have gotten pretty fearless in saying, there seems to be something more to this, can you tell me what is on your mind? I have no patience with that tension, that yucky feeling when something is hanging between you and someone else.

    I also find myself not saying things that are truly not necessary that I would have when I was younger, especially to my husband and kids. Like your wonderful image of the soup and ranch dressing, if it doesn’t really matter, than it doesn’t really matter.

    This being said, I still say silly stuff all the time. So I expect to report out again on my improvement forever. As always your writing and insight is so enjoyable. Consider this a love note in the mail.

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