Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Q22: How can I say, "You've got bad breath?"

Yes, someone actually asked me - because her new romance depended on saying it well. When we have 'negative' feedback, however constructive, we may feel understandably wary of giving it straight. What can we do to make it easier?

The 'sandwich method'  

Let's start by looking at the whole issue of feedback. Many people suggest placing a criticism in between two positive statements: the so-called 'sandwich method'. I'm all for appreciation, but there's a problem. It's too easily reduced to: 
Nice / Nasty / Nice

  • Our positive opening is lost because the other person guesses we also have a criticism. Don't ask me how - they just know it's on the way!
  • The closing appreciation is lost because they're still recovering from the 'nasty' news in the middle.
  • Our 'nasty' feedback is drowned out by our attempts to be positive - as in:
NICE / (ahem, sorry ... nasty) / NICE
 "You're a wonderful person. If it wasn't for your bad breath, I'd really fancy you. I mean, you've got gorgeous eyes!"

The poor recipient has no time to savour being wonderful before being hit by the embarrassing news. Reeling, he scarcely registers that he's got sex appeal and gorgeous eyes; or she dismisses your positive words as an attempt to save her feelings. The appreciation simply gets lost.

We feel bad when others feel bad 

There are other problems too. Sometimes, we race to say 'nice things' because we want to save another person's feelings:
We feel bad about others feeling bad. So our 'feedback sandwich' turns more squidgy and unpalatable than ever:

"I don't want you to feel bad!" 
= Now I feel bad.

"It's not ALL of the time!"

= So it's just MOST of the time?
"The rest was fantastic!"
= My one massive error ruined                            everything...

At this point, some people resort to clever ruses, like our reader who had romantic hopes. She writes:

  • "A friend suggested asking, "Have you been eating garlic?" which she'd tried out on her beauty therapist, who had felt a bit uncomfortable.... She also suggested having mints to hand so the person can do something about their breath instantly. But when I tried this on another unsuspecting friend (who didn't have bad breath at all), she nearly died of embarrassment and it took me several goes to let her know that I was just practising saying something difficult - oops!"

I admit I never feel comfortable using stratagems or ploys. However well-intentioned, it makes me feel devious. Nor does it increase my sense of connection with the other person. I'd be concentrating so hard on the stratagem that I'd no longer be fully present. I have more faith in communication which is wholehearted and spontaneous.

Safety precautions 

Yet if we're being spontaneous, a few safety precautions may help - especially if it's our feelings that are uppermost. Feelings quickly grab another person's attention, but they often alarm them too:

  • YOU: I'm feeling worried... 
  • OTHER: Well, don't blame me! They're YOUR feelings!
Of course, expressing feelings is often very helpful (to us and the other person). Our feelings are always present in some form; and if we don't say what they are, other people may assume they know what we are feeling (judgements we may not agree with!). 

So another way forward is to mention our feelings, and then quickly build in the 'good reasons' (Tip 11) for those feelings - the value or need which has gone missing, and so caused our feelings:

  • "I'm feeling worried because I truly want you to know how much I like you, and yet there's something I'd like to say... "

Speaking with 'no edge' 
Whatever we say, the most important thing is that we speak without any 'edge'; without any sharp, cross, self-righteous or defensive tone. If there's any edge to our voice, the other person will hear it. It's important to take away all judgement or blame from our thoughts and feelings before we speak. This means being free of those niggling thoughts and feelings altogether in ourselves. A tall order!

Being wholehearted and spontaneous
 So being honest, wholehearted and spontaneous is easier said than done. Sometimes - despite all my interest in communication - I just can't find the right words. At those times, I reckon it's because I'm not ready.

Faced with a difficult situation, we all need time to settle and calm; to be kind to ourselves. The principle is:

  • The happier you feel about speaking, the easier it is for the other person to hear you

You'll know when you're ready to speak, because you'll naturally avoid negative judgements. You'll feel free and easy in what you say - and able to move QUICKLY onto the other person's ground (at any point in the process).

Now you can say in your own words what's bothering you.

"You've got bad breath!" 
But I'm sorry! It's just impossible for me to say exactly how I'd tell someone they have bad breath. The best approach will be you, spontaneous and caring, in your own way, your own words or gestures - all of which will depend on who you are talking to, when and where....

Instead, here are a few tips in summary:

1. Speak without any 'edge'!
  • Remember: any unprocessed ('difficult') feeling inside us is likely to come across to other people as anger, blame or aggression

2. Empathy before education (time and space for the other person)

  • Create a real listening space to hear 'their side', and empathise first with all those 'good reasons' for their behaviour

3. Signal!  
  • Maybe start gently; estimate size and length of time needed:
"Have you got a moment to talk something over? It's not a big matter, but it is worrying me..."

Now appreciation flows! 
Only when the other person feels our genuine empathy is it worth offering them appreciation. Before then, our efforts may be wasted. So I suggest we ditch the classic 'sandwich method', and offer our positive comments separately! Only then can we give full value to the appreciation. Usually, it flows spontaneously once the challenging part of the conversation is over.

Good luck!

By Elizabeth English

with Peter Kuklis

Further tips: 
"I" phrases shown in Q15 
Hot tips for appreciation, TIP 7


  1. I would say "Blimey! What have you been eating?"

  2. Yes! If we aren't dogged by any sort of 'edge' – irritation, anxiety or whatever – we can say pretty much anything and it feels okay. It comes out naturally and freely.