When we want others to learn a lesson: Litmus tests for truth telling.

Have you ever been in a situation when you’re hearing something powerful, or learning a lesson, and thought to yourself; “I wish such and such were here to hear this!”

Or likewise, when you observe someone’s poor decision or reactions, and want to nail some truths to their door. Maybe we see relationships friends and loved ones are a part of, and we diagnose their issues quick smart.

Maybe it’s more personal than that. Maybe someone has hurt you, wronged you, judged you, written you off or excluded you, and you rehearse over and over the perfect speech to give them a piece of your mind, serving them home truths about what their actions have cost you.

Whether it is your parent, spouse, sibling, or friend, these situations vary in their context, content, or severity of stakes, but they really are all fuelled by the same goal:

We want other people to learn their lesson.

– me. circa 1983-present day

Perhaps we want them to see the pain they’ve caused us – or others.
Perhaps we want them to see how they are caught up in habits of self sabotage.
Perhaps we want them to extend compassion towards those they are dismissive of.
Perhaps we want them to realise their snobbery is unappealing and shallow.
Perhaps we want them to soften their hearts that have become brittle.
Perhaps we want them to know that there is better for them than the life they are currently leading.

No matter the lesson, we are often left in a state of angst – in frustration that we can’t change other people, in resentment that we need to accept people for who they are, or fear that their continued actions without change will result in significant negative consequences.

Because we’ve all been there. I think we’ve all spent time daydreaming and indulging the fantasy of the ‘speak my truth’ monologue conversation. When we see an ex-partner and tell them the thing that we wanted to say the whole of our relationship – (of course eloquently, accompanied with a stellar outfit). Or we give an awful employer a piece of our mind. Or we indulge the insistent need to tell that one person how we love them and feel about them, no matter the consequence.

“They need to know how I feel!”.

– Us

…But do they?

I was ruminating with my best mate about this topic and she asked me a pertinent question

When we have a hard truth – for someone else, who exactly does this ‘truth’ serve?

If we are honest with ourselves, it’s often us.

Is this truth, this lesson, going to make them feel better? Or you?


I think we are better served if we honestly ask ourselves what we want from the hard truth-conversation. My therapist queried me of this some years ago when I was discussing a prickly relationship in which I wanted to bring up an elephant in the room and offer hard truth.

“What do you want to happen in the conversation?”
I thought about it, and answered “I want them to do x, y and z”
“You’re probably not going to get that”, she replied, and so advised me to not bring up the topic in conversation.

Which is weird advice right? Aren’t all relationships built on total honesty and open communication?

Yes – and perhaps, no. Not in the way we often think about flagrant, raw truth. Relationships are built on trust, honesty, but most importantly, kindness and love in supporting one another. Sometimes, sometimes, we are given the opportunity – and here is the kicker, INVITED, to be brutal, hard truth tellers, but there may be lots of circumstances where it our ‘privilege to hold our tongue – even in service of the truth’ – my wise best mate again. We may serve the relationship by holding our tongue, when we realise that we serve the relationship by first working through our pain in another safer, healthy context or outlet, until it is time to speak the ‘truth’. We need to ask ourselves honestly, soberly, who is the lesson for? Who does the truth serve?

So here’s litmus test 1:

#1: Is the lesson for them – or us?

If the lesson is for us, perhaps we should learn it before we thrust it upon others.

So. we’ve successfully moved through litmus test number one: the lesson is definitely not for us, it’s for another person. We are satisfied that our truth and lesson is for the the recipient.

We then should ask ourselves if the lesson is for the other person to feel bad for what they’ve done to us, or if we are genuinely concerned for that person (which is really litmus test #1 again – is this their stuff, or is it my stuff?). We deflect and project from our own insecurities and rough spots far more than we like to admit.

Bill Johnson gives incredibly sage advice on this:

Don’t speak, just to give people a piece of your mind. Speak because you want to contribute to their well being. If you do that, you’ll know the difference between speaking truth in and of itself, and speaking truth in love.

Bill Johnson

We should speak truth because we want to contribute to their wellbeing.

Thus litmus test 2:

#2: Does the lesson contribute to their wellbeing?

If we want to speak truth to make someone else suffer, I would encourage us to sit with that reality for a bit and process that within a safe space. When we speak hard truths to loved ones, we want the outcome to build them up.

Having passed test 1 & 2, we then should also consider if it’s the right time to speak. Even if it’s true, and even if we genuinely feel like we should be sharing this information for another’s benefit, are they ready to hear it?

“Just because it’s true, are they ready to bear it?” – Best mate Katie. Again.

It can be a minefield.

I’m gonna repeat what I said earlier. Sometimes, sometimes, we are given the opportunity – and here is the kicker, INVITED, to be truth tellers, but there may be lots of circumstances where it our ‘privilege to hold out tongue – even in service of the truth’.

If someone we know is making bad decisions from a state of fear, trauma, pain, or grief, it is rarely helpful to confront someone, guns blazing, with our truth bombs. Compassion should always, always, always be prioritised over truth telling.

The annoying reality is that we don’t have monopoly of wisdom about our loved ones. We have blind spots, bias, prejudice, and a limited perspective about the lives of those around us, even if we are in close relationship to them. We may not (and often don’t) have the full story of their context, so we need to be very S. L. O. W. to tell people what they “NEED” to hear.

We serve ourselves and our loved ones well to ask questions and listen FIRST rather than speak anything from our ‘truth’ reserves. Discernment and reflexivity will always serve us. Thus we arrive at

Litmus test 3:

#3: Does their context shed light on our truth telling?

Building a context can shed light on people’s decisions, logics, responses, that we were previously ignorant of. It may change the truth you’re telling. Or the way you tell it. Or the timing.

So we come to the big leagues now. We’re three tests in. This lesson has proven itself. It’s not not about us, it is a truth that will serve our loved ones and neighbours, and it remains imperative even after understanding their context.

How do then we speak truth? Can we finally get around to teaching people lessons?

Not really. We need to acknowledge the fact that we can’t change people.


passivity is compliance, right?

surely, we must act, right?


The reality of life is that even if what you speak is true, if it is a correction, it will probably not be received well. I mean, who here easily welcomes a criticism of their spousal choices, or their perspective or values in life?

I remember being 14, and after my well meaning and wise father who was gently trying to teach me some hard-earned life truisms, yelling in his face in classic teenage angst; “LET ME LEARN MY OWN LESSONS!!!!” before slamming the door and barricading myself in my room.

People need to learn their own lessons.

It may not be the right time.

you may not be the right voice.

What I’m learning, is that it is far more common for us – and thus far more important for us not just to be sources of truth telling, but of homes of compassion and hospitality.

It may be heartbreaking, and frustrating, and withering, but when we have a truth for others to learn, they’re not going to want to hear it from us if we don’t offer them hospitality and compassion first.

If we’ve been wronged and hurt by their actions, this approach feels contradictory.

It feels so passive, ineffective, flaccid, weak. 

It is an affront to the anxiety about taking a stand and speaking truth to the moment. 

Compassion feels so quiet. 

Compassion feels like a cop out. 

Holding your space of hospitality feels wasted, like laying out a meal that your kids refuse to eat. But compassion is far more powerful than we give it credit for.

Compassion holds our hearts soft. 

It is painful. And feels isolating.

BUT Compassion is akin to hospitality. creating spaces for people to return to, to feel safe in.

I think about this stance so often when my heart breaks for lessons not learned, for loved ones that I desperately want better for. I think about this stance even when my truth doesn’t pass the litmus tests: when it is about the pain I’ve received and the desire I continue to hold for others to understand that pain. lessons can, and do get learned.

Hard conversations can and do take place. And they can be beautiful. And beneficial. But they are less frequent than we imagine. When they do take place, they are rarely immediate. Lessons usually require time to be truly heard. And most importantly, they need to take place in a [relational] safe space. Which means that you might have to wait. and you might have to hold your ground in integrity, in an openness to relationship, in hospitality – even if they’re closed off to you – because compassion and hospitality is the first step to lessons being learned. Be patient.

The wisest and most experienced people in my life are rarely the ones who offer hard truths – even though they are the ones most qualified to do so. I’ve watched them be accused and wronged by others, sometimes questioning why they don’t lash out and put people in their place. But watching them, the trait that is common to all is the compassion they offer first. The way they hold their ground, and patiently keep offering up opportunities for connection, conversation and hospitality. I want to be like that.

Biggest trick of truth telling: Hold the space. Hold integrity of relationship. And you might be given permission, or invited to speak your truth. It’s a better (and more successful) plan of attack. I promise.

Litmus test 4:

#4 Can you be patient? Hold the space for hospitality and compassion.

Here’s to truth telling – to the discerning, to the well being, to the asking, to the compassion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s