Painful truths are always difficult to tell and hear; if they weren’t, they’d call them no-problem-o truths. I recently had to confront this dilemma in the form of telling someone close to me that their breath has been chronically very, very bad for a while, and that I’m worried about this issue for health reasons, and would they please consider making an appointment with a dentist and/or regular doctor ASAP? The reason I felt that I needed to tell this painful truth wasn’t because I was smelling the offending breath all the time. (I wasn’t; the other person and I don’t live in the same state.) It was because chronic bad breath can be a sign of advanced tooth decay, which can lead to serious infections of the blood. (Bad breath can also be a sign of ongoing reflux.) I love this person, so I don’t want this person to die. And I certainly don’t want them to die of a totally preventable blood infection. Now, this kind of painful truth truly is tough to navigate and negotiate; and I’m not sure if being emotionally close to the person makes spilling the goods (or bads) easier or harder. (I ended up spilling mine via email, which seems to have worked fairly well so far, but we’ll see.) Still, I wanted to ask a professional for their take on this touchy subject. Enter M.D. and board-certified psychiatrist Dale Archer, who talked to me about when and how to go about breaking bad or really uncomfortable news to someone you care about. Plus, he gave us ten techniques to help make telling a painful truth a lot more bearable for the other person — and ourselves.
Must painful truths always be told?
No. Realize that you don’t always have to tell someone the truth if it will be painful. Sometimes, with an acquaintance or friend, when no harm will come to them, you can omit something or tell a white lie — no harm, no foul.
So once we’ve decided to tell a painful truth, how the hell should we go about doing it?
- Timing is everything. Make sure the other person isn’t dealing with another terrible stress. Try to tell them when they’re emotionally stable, if possible.
- Make it a quiet place — comfortable setting with no distractions.
- Try to plan it out in advance. “Hey Joe, there’s something important I need to talk to you about…can we set a day/time?”
- Don’t beat around the bush and talk about a lot of other things first. The other person will perceive from you that something’s wrong. Get straight to the point.
- Start with a positive aspect about the individual, and then tell the painful truth. Example: “Sarah, you are one of the most honest/smartest/friendliest people I know, so I have to tell you that…”
- Allow the other person to process and respond. After you tell the painful truth, wait for their response.
- Allow the other person to ask questions. This is how we come to terms with and better understand a painful reality. So answer each and every one as best you can.
- Don’t allow the meeting to drag on too long. Usually 30 minutes to an hour is the maximum time you want to spend discussing a painful truth.
- Tell the other person that if they have more questions later on, you’re available to discuss it further after they’ve thought it over (within reason and depending on how close you are).
- If possible, end the meeting on a positive note or with a bit of humor. This lets the other person know this situation isn’t the end of the world, and that life goes on.
Dr. Dale Archer is a medical doctor, board-certified psychiatrist, and Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association who has helped thousands of patients for more than two decades. His focus is to give good common sense psychological advice. Specialties include chemical imbalances of the brain, relationships, and personal responsibility.