A Little Hurt to Avoid a Larger Harm

10. 01. 2014    |    posted by: Cathy Carroll

Ever resisted the urge to tell someone something they needed to hear, for fear it would hurt their feelings? Most of us have. Most people avoid hurting others, and yet, sometimes a small hurt can avert a large harm.

Sherry and her two sons, Mike and Alex, lead a very successful business. Mike has been a key driver for growth in the business, but is reaching his wit’s end. Every time he makes a statement, his mother takes the opposite position. He says black, she says white. He says up, she says down. And then they spend the next 20 minutes arguing about who is right, even if the issue at hand is inconsequential.

Mike is ready to quit. He loves his mother, but the lack of support is eating him up. He avoids bringing the subject up with her because it will surely hurt her feelings, and he is afraid to leave the business for fear of hurting her feelings as well. He feels as though he has no way out.

In a recent strategy meeting I facilitated, this behavior emerged and derailed the discussion. Mike reached the end of his rope, stood up, and announced that he wanted to cancel and reschedule the meeting. We decided to take a break.

Fifteen minutes later, his temper had eased. I asked Sherry about her goals when she plays devil’s advocate. She replied that she wanted the “best idea” to emerge, and didn’t want to accept anything at face value without a rich discussion.

I asked Mike to describe how he feels when his mother takes opposing positions. He replied that he feels belittled, undervalued, and exhausted. Mike feels like his mother is engaging in a combative sport, and it radically disrupts productivity because they go down irrelevant and time-consuming rabbit holes. The issue had reached a point that if it went unresolved, he was prepared to leave the family business.

Sherry was surprised and hurt. She didn’t intend to belittle or frustrate her son. Her behavior was an old habit that didn’t serve her in this situation, and now that she is aware, she can approach issues differently.

This story illustrates the value of intentionally hurting the ones we love by speaking our truth. Mike desperately tried to avoid hurting his mother’s feelings, so he lived in a state of torture, feeling damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Once he found the courage to speak his truth, he inflicted a little hurt, to avoid a much bigger harm. He didn’t really want to leave the family business. He wanted to feel valued and respected. To do that, he had to speak up.

So, how do you deliver a hurt that needs to be said? Here are some tips:

  • Breathe. Most likely, your emotions have the better of you. Make sure to take some calming, deep breaths before beginning the conversation.
  • Feel compassion. Start by giving the benefit of the doubt. Even though you may not see it, imagine good intentions by all involved.
  • Make “I” statements and state specific facts. For instance, avoid saying something like, “You never listen to me!” Instead, say something like, “I feel frustrated when you walk away when I’m speaking.”
  • Really listen. Restate what the other person says. “I understand you feel frustrated when I walk away while you are speaking.”
  • Seek to understand and focus on the result. Ask questions like, “Am I making any incorrect assumptions?” “What am I missing?” “What’s the result we want to achieve?”
  • Having the tools and the courage to hurt is an essential skill that accomplished leaders use regularly. Think about areas in your life where a little hurt can avoid a larger harm.


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