If you can’t say something nice …

I heard a radio commercial the other day sponsored by the Department of Public Health.  In it, two neighbors who live in an apartment complex meet at their mailboxes; the conversation starts something like this:

Neighbor 1: “Oh, hi, how’s it going?”

Neighbor 2: “Not bad, except for that couple that just moved in next door to us.  They smoke a lot, and ever since they moved in my son keeps coughing.”

Neighbor 1: “Do they know your son has asthma?  Have you talked to them?”

Neighbor 2: “Oh, no, I just keep hoping they’ll hear him coughing and stop.”

At this point I literally stopped and turned to look at the radio.  I felt shocked and quite annoyed at these two neighbors.  I thought, You have a problem with your neighbors, a situation that you believe is directly affecting your child’s health, and yet all you’re willing to do is “keep hoping they’ll change”?  Why won’t you talk to them?

I then imagined the scenario from the smoking neighbors’ point of view.  Perhaps I don’t hear your son coughing.  Perhaps I hear the coughing but I think it’s due to an allergy within your apartment.  Perhaps I even find the noise annoying, and wonder why those parents don’t give that poor child some medicine to make it stop?  In any event, perhaps it never occurs to me that the coughing has anything to do with me.

It seems to me that when we’re just going through life, we often don’t realize that our words and actions can have an adverse impact on other people.  Conversely, when someone’s words and actions negatively impact us, do we tell the person directly?  Many people choose instead to grouse to friends and family about “those people,” or silently stew, feeling wronged, offended, hurt, angered, invalidated, etc.

So when I heard this commercial, I felt shocked and annoyed to see this pattern not just repeated, but seemingly endorsed.  It reminded me of the old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  But I wonder if this way of thinking has been taken to an unhealthy extreme.  It may seem easier to suffer in silence or hope they’ll stop, but what is the cost to you, your family, your relationship with your neighbor, your quality of life at home, etc.?

OK, yes, it’s just a commercial.  Yes, I’m reading in much more than the Department of Health ever imagined.  Yes, these aren’t real people.  But these types of scenarios are certainly real.  Almost everyone has been the “victim” or the “perpetrator” of words or behaviors with a negative impact.  But the situation will most likely not be satisfactorily resolved for everyone until someone decides to talk about it.

I’ve found the easiest way to open such a conversation is with the truth:  “I don’t know if you realize, but [the action] is having a difficult impact on me.  Can we talk about this?”

I also keep a few “ground rules” in my mind:

1) I expect that I will treat them with respect.

2) I expect that they aren’t aware of the impact of their words or actions, and that there is no malicious intent.

3) I do not expect them to agree with me.  I do not expect this conversation to be a subtle form of “You need to stop doing/saying that.”  (They probably don’t see their actions as “a problem,” and will likely become defensive if my intent is that they “just stop.”)

4) I’m not making my discomfort their problem or their fault; I’m treating it more as a situation that we can both work on.

5) I’m open to suggestions of changes I can make which can help improve the situation.

When I’m ready to work within this frame, I can feel confident to open the difficult conversation with my neighbor without fault, blame or shame.  In return, most often I find that my neighbors have been apologetic and more than willing to change their behavior.  I believe, more often than not, that our neighbors are just glad we had the courage to say something “not nice.”

That courage and willingness to broach an uncomfortable subject has repeatedly lead to stronger, more open relationships with friends, family, neighbors, people – which is so much nicer than the alternative of endless resentment, fear, and tension.  It may not be easy, and it may not be “nice,” but it’s almost always a conversation worth having.

I’m open to hearing your thoughts.

Adele Cox, MA, CMT
Youniversoul Health & Wellness
2305 Ashby Avenue
Berkeley, CA  94705