This was first published on ksl.com
I am in a wonderful relationship. I feel very loved, and I love her. We respect each other’s differences and appreciate them. However, something has recently come up: my partner has started smoking socially. I am a religious person and she is not, but that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that she is a recovering addict and she’s been sober for two years, but I’m afraid she is going to use smoking to replace her old vice. Would I be controlling or rude if I told her I was concerned by her smoking? She is pretty stressed right now, and I want to help her, but I can’t stand thinking that she’s going to develop another harmful habit.
It sounds like what you're asking is how to give negative feedback about another person’s problem or bad habit without making them feel defensive or attacked. Here are some tips and a very soft approach to making these tricky conversations easier.
Treat the other person as an equal
When you treat the other person as an equal, you do not talk down to them. We all have a subconscious tendency to see bad behavior in another person as making them "less good" than we are, and we might accidentally come across as thinking we are "better" if we aren’t careful. It is important that you remember that even though you don’t have this problem or bad habit, you have others. You are not perfect. You have faults and flaws too. Make sure you see the other person as an equal and make them feel honored and respected for their right to be where they are. Remember, they have the same value as you. Don’t talk down or be patronizing.
Focus on gaining understanding
Go into the conversation with your only agenda being to gain understanding and make the other person feel valued. Don’t have an agenda around changing or fixing them; if you do, they will pick up on this and likely get defensive from the start. Go into this conversation with the primary goal of showing them you care about, honor and respect them. You can have a topic in mind — in this case, to understand more about their smoking — but with no agenda around it.
Ask for permission to approach the subject
Ask the other person if they would be willing to have a conversation about smoking so you can know and love them better. Go ahead and let them know the topic you want to talk about, but reassure them that you are going to really listen and will not lecture, push your opinions, or interrupt. Make sure they feel safe with you. If you have not been a good listener in the past, you might have to apologize for that and ask them to please give you another chance to show up better.
Ask non-judgmental questions
Ask them questions about what they think and feel around the topic but make sure the questions don’t sound judgmental. Questions like: "Why in the world would you want to smoke? and "Don’t you know how damaging it is?" are judgmental questions. Instead, try something like "I really want to understand about smoking, I guess I don’t really understand the appeal. Would you be willing to educate me and help me understand why you like it? I promise my asking is not from judgment, but just from wanting to understand you so I can support you better. Would you tell me about what it does for you?" Notice the lack of agenda in that? The other person is not going to be honest and share their feelings if they feel you are going to make them feel wrong or bad. They have to feel they have a safe place to share.
Don't agree or disagree
Don't agree or disagree with what the other person says. Simply listen and validate their right to be where they are and feel the way they do. Say things like, "I can totally see why you might feel that way. Tell me more about that." Remember, you can disagree with what they say or think and still validate their right to feel the way they do. If you strongly disagree with their views, bite your tongue and don’t go there yet.
Be open to making your own changes
If you want someone to hear you, listen to your views, and possibly change their viewpoint or behavior, you must first show them you are also open to changing yours (you might want to read that again). This is the crucial piece. If you are stubbornly dug into your being right, they are going to do the same. If they can feel that you are open to learning, understanding, and even being wrong, they can let their defenses come down because they are safe to do so. They likely will be more open, too. You may have to prove that you are this open by actually bending and admitting you are learning some things here that make you rethink your position.
Ask to share your views
After the other person has had awhile to really explain their views, and they feel heard and validated, then and only then can you ask permission to share your views. Ask them if they know that you love them and only want the best for them. Ask them if they know you are coming from a position of only love, not judgment. Very respectfully ask them if they would be willing to let you share some of your concerns about smoking and why it scares you. Let them know if they don’t feel comfortable hearing your views on this, that is OK too. This makes this a real question, not a rhetorical one. If they say they are not open to hearing your views, you must say, "OK, I respect that" and walk away. Your willingness to honor their answer builds trust in the relationship.
Follow 2 simple rules
When the other person is ready to listen to you, follow these two simple rules:
Love, encourage and validate
If a person feels you are trying to change them, they will always resist changing. If they feel your unconditional love and support, and if you express concern from love and caring (not judgment) and are willing to listen, understand, and even learn something you didn’t know, they will be more open.
The best way to get someone to change something about themselves is through encouragement and positive validation. You could watch for times that she makes good health choices and tell her how awesome she is that she cares about her health and makes those choices. Let her know you admire the way she quit her previous addictive behavior and that you really love and respect her for that (without saying anything about smoking). If you make these comments every once in awhile, she might want to live up to your highest opinion of her and decide to change her habits on her own because she wants to be that person that you see.
Remember, though, you must stay out of judgment and let go of the idea that you are right and she is wrong. Show up with total respect for her and her choices, and just focus on understanding and supporting her. This approach is not controlling or rude as long as you are sincere.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.