Being Tactful With Honest Advice

Katie Young
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Wednesday - December 17, 2008

When is a kindness not a kindness? That question could apply to anyone faced with trying to provide honest feedback that may be resented because it’s, well, too honest.

Whether it’s a family member, friend or significant other, honesty can be a minefield if it’s not handled well. Most of us would rather avoid the issue by just telling the person what we think he or she wants to hear. Take, for instance, the wife who asks her husband how she looks in a dress. Some men might play it safe by muttering something complimentary rather than risking being in the doghouse for the rest of the night.

Or what about the guy who thinks he looks good in a comb-over when others might advise him to just settle for the natural look? We all have our own delusions when it comes to seeing ourselves in the mirror, but sometimes being a friend might mean saving someone from false hopes or ridicule.

A recent Bravo TV segment of The Real Housewives of Atlanta showed a woman, Kim Zolciak, trying to embark on a singing career. But the scenes of her singing for Grammy award-winning producer Dallas Austin and Miss Jan, a voice coach, left me wondering what was wrong with everyone’s hearing. Zolciak seemed to truly believe she had talent and these professionals only encouraged her.

I wondered why these professionals were being so nice when it was clear that Zolciak was far from her dream. In addition, fellow housewife Sheree Whitfield listened to Zolciak belt out a tune in the car and had nothing but words of praise for her friend about how beautiful her voice was.

Was I the only one who thought she sounded like a wounded seal? It got me thinking about the choice we have as friends and family members - or as professionals, for that matter - to tell someone when they really aren’t good at something they are hoping to pursue.

Are you doing your friend a favor by telling her she’s a fabulous piano player if she is clearly missing every other note? Are you helping your pal or hurting him if you say his sculpture that resembles a smashed ball of clay is a work of art?

Clearly, friends and family members feel an obligation to be supportive, to encourage dreams and foster creativity. After all, the rest of the world can be cruel, so if your friends and family can’t support you, who will?

And, of course, you never know. Plenty of people who were told they couldn’t make it as singers, chefs, artists or musicians by one person or another have gone on to prove they really could make it happen. You’d hate to cut short a dream that has even the slightest possibility of coming true. Sometimes those negative comments can inspire a person to charge ahead with even more determination.

But at what point is honesty more important than false compliments and kindness? I would hate for someone to tell me I was really good at something I was clearly bad at. You don’t have to tell someone they’ll never make it, but don’t we owe it to those we love to at least be honest about the work they might need to invest to reach their goal? There is more to being supportive than just fluffing someone’s feathers for the sake of saving their feelings.

One of the hardest parts of reaching a goal is separating the dream from reality. At some point, you have to face the competition and your own shortcomings so you know where you need to improve, the skills you have to have to succeed and the steps you have to take to get to the goal. Half the battle may be your own determination, but surely the other half is a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. That’s when some honesty and tactful advice, offered with kindness from friends and family, might be more helpful than a compliment that leaves you with nothing but false hope.

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