How to Offer Loving Correction When A Loved One Is Out of Line

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Monica Gabriel Marshall
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Art Credit: Nima Salimi

“Don’t judge.” It's a quip heard so frequently today it's easy to forget its meaning. In today’s vernacular, passing judgment means pronouncing a person’s actions good or bad and therefore judging the person. But nobody is immune to bad behavior, neither you nor the people you love. We all need correction sometimes, and in particular when we are hurting others or ourselves. Still, no one wants to be seen as a naysayer or a “hater” . . . so what should we do when someone we love is acting badly?

There are those who love a good confrontation and are quick to call out bad behavior, sacrificing finesse in their haste. Then there are those, like myself, who recognize bad behavior, but cower at the thought of bringing it to the attention of the offender. But the truth is, neither of these modes of behavior help your loved one, and both usually end up hurting your relationship as well. Here are four helpful tips for offering loving correction.

Don’t React.

We have all been there—the moment when we've had enough. Consciously or unconsciously the issue's been bubbling under the surface, and now we've reached the breaking point. Maybe it’s yet another boyfriend who is all wrong, or one too many drinks-too-many, or another series of mean-spirited remarks—whatever it is, you can’t hack it anymore, and for your friendship and your friend, you have to say something. Now take a deep breath, and let the moment pass.

Sometimes, you do have to speak up in the moment. But in most situations your correction will be better delivered and better received when you have taken time to cool off. Take time to think about and articulate your concern. Then approach your loved one at the next available opportunity.

Keep it private.

Nobody enjoys being corrected; it requires humility which takes some mustering and is generally pretty embarrassing. Put yourself in your loved one's shoes. Would you enjoy being called out in public or among friends? Pull your friend aside if it can’t wait or, better yet, wait and invite them somewhere private like a coffee shop that has plenty of private nooks or your place for a drink or a nice meal. It’s also helpful to give your friend a clue that you have something specific to talk about—this way they are mentally prepared for a more serious discussion.

Keep it factual.

Many people can slip into exaggeration when they are recounting a story with passion or enthusiasm—but this can be a detraction that can often derail your well-intentioned correction. Does she always date men who treat her disrespectfully or has it only been the past two boyfriends? Does she get drunk every time she goes out or has it been more like every time you have seen her in the last two weeks? Is she never polite to your mutual friend or are there specific instances you can think of where she made a mean-spirited remark? Make an effort to downplay the drama and stick to the facts. It may seem overly scrupulous, but exaggeration causes most people to go on the defensive and can add insult to one's already wounded pride.

Make your intentions clear.

The best way to preempt defensiveness is to be clear from the very beginning about why you are offering this correction—because you care about your loved one and you care about your relationship. Emphasizing this point is what differentiates criticism from loving correction.

Don’t be afraid to let your own guard down and be honest with your friend about how you hate to cause the discomfort of confrontation, but you're doing so because you care about them and because you want to be a loving sister, daughter, cousin, aunt, or faithful friend.

Be available, but also give some space.

After discussing your concern with your loved one comes perhaps the hardest part. Give them some space. Of course you should remain available should he or she want to discuss things further with you, but if not, try to respect the fact that it takes some time for things to sink in. Your chat might not change their behavior at all or as soon as you'd hope, but part of loving someone involves accepting their free will. What matters is that you spoke up when you needed to; the rest is beyond your control. And, chances are, on a long enough timeline your loved one will appreciate that about you.

Photo by Nima Salimi