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Tell It Like It Is

How to speak the truth to a friend without harming your friendship

I'll always remember when my good friend, Sheri, called me on the carpet about my attitude problem. I'm thankful now, but at the time …

Sheri and I were sitting in her cozy kitchen sipping coffee and nibbling on bake-sale leftovers. "I saw Darla in Sears yesterday," she said. "She's lost a bunch of weight."

"Wonder how long it'll take her to gain it back this time," I said, reaching for a third macadamia nut cookie. "She always does, you know.

Darla-of-the-fluctuating-weight and I once had been good friends. Not any more. For more than a year, we'd barely spoken. Even though Darla had made numerous attempts to mend the rift in our relationship, one caused by a misunderstanding involving our children, I continued to nurse a grudge against her.

"Darla told me her eldest daughter just got accepted into medical school," said Sheri. "Her middle girl's engaged to an attorney, and her son's in line to be awarded the high school's art scholarship this year."

"Darla always thinks her kids are better than anyone else's," I sniffed.

After refilling my mug, Sheri looked me in the eye and said, "Annette, we need to talk. Hasn't it been long enough? What's the deal with you still having such a hateful attitude toward Darla? Everyone who knows you can tell you don't like her."

"It's that obvious?"

"It is. And Annette, listen to me." My friend put her hand on my arm. "Whatever the problem is, you need to get over it. Your attitude isn't right, and you know it."

Ouch. Sheri's honest words hurt my feelings. But they also affected me in a way a dozen sermons on forgiveness hadn't. She was absolutely right. My hateful attitude was wrong. We talked some more, and I was overcome with shame and remorse. That night I prayed for forgiveness for myself and for blessings for Darla and her family.

Later that week, with shaking hands and a pounding heart, I delivered homemade banana nut bread and a ribbon-wrapped cinnamon candle to Darla's new house. That afternoon, over glasses of iced tea, Darla and I spoke careful words of apology and forgiveness. We avoided the specifics of what had caused our estrangement; it seemed pointless to visit that place again. What mattered to us both was our mutual desire to make things right.

Today, Darla and I are real friends again, thanks to Sheri's honest words.

Caring Enough to Correct

I'm grateful my friend Sheri spoke up. The fact she loved me enough to confront me says volumes about our relationship. I realize it wasn't easy for her to talk to me about my bad attitude and unloving behavior.

Touchy topics are difficult to discuss for even the closest of friends. Yet, relationships involve flawed people who make mistakes and get into messes. Friends need to be able to count on each other not just for fun and affirmation, but for careful words of instruction and correction, too. Committing ourselves to a friendship means that because we care on a deep, intimate level, we have the courage to speak up even when a friend needs to hear tough words of truth. For with true friendship come joy and responsibility.

The Courage to Confront

When Jasmine (not her real name) found herself teetering on the brink of an affair with a married coworker, she flew across the state to spend the weekend with her life-long friend, Dee. Tearfully, Jasmine hinted to Dee about what she feared she was going to do if the situation continued.

Although Jasmine employed veiled words and phrases, Dee understood exactly what she was saying. Yet embarrassed and afraid, Dee didn't dole out the bitter-but-good-for-her medicine for which Jasmine had come. Dee was so rattled by her friend's revelation, she couldn't bring herself to take Jasmine by the shoulders, give her a firm shake, and demand, "What are you thinking? Run! Find a new job! Get away from this man!"

Instead, Dee feigned tiredness and went to bed early, suggesting they go shopping and to a movie the next day. Taking Dee's cue, Jasmine didn't bring up the situation again.

Sure enough, six months later in a tearful, long-distance conversation, Jasmine confessed to Dee that she'd had an affair. It was over and done now, but she faced a host of heart-breaking consequences.

This time Dee was there to comfort, support, and forgive her friend. She listened, shared her friend's tears, and offered words of wisdom and comfort. Dee was honest with Jasmine about her mistake and what she needed to do to amend the situation.

One can't help but wonder what would have happened if Dee had possessed the courage to confront Jasmine six months earlier. Would it have made a difference? There's no way of knowing for sure. Jasmine rightly accepts full responsibility for her actions. Still, Dee was in the position to speak honestly with her friend, and she didn't.

To avoid talking truthfully to a friend about a situation that's hurtful, dangerous, or out of God's will, is to dishonor both the friendship and the friend. When we've been trusted with the blessing of a friend, we must love that friend enough to be willing to experience hurt, rejection, even anger. In the end, truth heals.

What's My Motivation?

Before addressing a difficult situation with a friend, motives should be examined. If there's any self-righteousness, any feelings of one-upmanship, even the tiniest desire to get even with our friend for something she's said to us, then we should, at least for a time, keep silent. Honesty, especially when it comes to touchy subjects, must be accompanied by pure, loving motives. If our words aren't bathed in love, they'll hurt rather than heal.

Speaking honestly with a friend about a serious matter requires that we put thought and planning into our words. Doing so requires staying in tune with how our friend's taking what we have to say.

Doing the Deed

You realize the day's come for you to confront your friend. What do you say? How do you start?

Begin by bathing your friend in prayer. Ask God to give you the right words and to take away any wrong motives. Select a time when you and your friend will have privacy and won't be interrupted. Begin by affirming your love and care for your friend. Then calmly and gently share with her your observation. Take care not to pass judgment or place blame.

"I'm worried, Jill. You stopped taking your medicine. I see signs of your depression coming back."

"Katie, you've always said you'd never get involved with a man who isn't a Christian, yet I see you becoming very close to Sam. I'm fearful you may be falling for him, and he says he's not sure he believes in God."

Your friend's response to your words will tell you what to say next. She may become defensive, angry, or appear hurt. Match your words to her response. If she's open, talk in greater depth about your concerns. However, if she clams up, back off. Remind her of how much you care about her, and tell her if she feels like talking about the situation some other time, you'll be there for her. Then give her a hug, tell her you're praying for her, and change the subject.

When to Zip the Lip

When my friend Sheri confronted me about my attitude toward Darla, I was thankful to her for being honest with me. However, last week, when she told me my new hair color made me look all washed out and that it was past time for me to retire my favorite sweater—it was pilled, you understand, and stretched out—I was a bit less appreciative of her honest words!

Topics that don't involve moral, health, or safety issues are best left alone. A friend who's gained ten pounds already knows it. She doesn't need us to point it out to her, regardless of how helpful we think our words are. Some matters are simply of no consequence. When a friend out-and-out asks our opinion on a new recipe (chopped apples, Cool Whip, and ranch dressing?) or on the way we think her daughter's hair looks fixed like that (Funny, really funny, is what pops into our mind), we're wise if we can find something good to say before quickly changing the subject. It's never okay to fib, but no one ever said we should say every truthful thought that pops into our head!

Honesty Is the Best Policy

True friendships are a blessing from God. Starting today, determine to be honest with your friends—about how much they mean to you, how much you treasure your time together, and how much you value the relationship you have with them. For one thing, it's the honest truth. A friend, a true friend, is one of the Father's best blessings. Enjoy!

Annette Smith, an author and speaker, lives with her family in Texas.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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