The four words that change the way people talk to you
Imagine you’re hanging out with a friend.
You’ve been chatting for a bit, and they reveal something more vulnerable about themselves than they usually discuss with you. Maybe it’s admitting that they feel lonely at work, or maybe it’s talking about their history with depression. Whatever it is, it’s a level or two deeper than your usual conversations.
How do you respond?
Now imagine that you’re at work, and someone who doesn’t usually offer feedback offers you some constructive criticism. You may feel uncomfortable hearing it, but you want to make sure that they feel comfortable telling you the truth the next time something like this arises.
What do you say?
Both the friend and work situations involve someone sharing more than they usually do, and you want to make sure they feel safe sharing with you the next time something like this comes up, too.
It’s a make-or-break moment that can determine how they respond the next time something like this comes up: whether they take the “easy” route by not telling you, or whether they feel safe enough with you to tell you the truth.
Chances are, you’re missing a crucial and shockingly easy opportunity to make sure your friend or coworker feels comfortable sharing openly with you again, using four first-grade-reading-level words.
I discovered those words while having a conversation with a friend I usually talk to about community organizing, dance, and psychology, but not particularly personal stuff. They asked me about what growing up for Miami was like for me, and I found myself feeling comfortable enough with them to give a longer answer than usual.
I told my friend about the challenge of growing up in a community that rewarded attention to physical appearance and punished investment in intellectual growth. I told them that some of my friends got nose jobs as sixteenth birthday presents from their parents. I told them that a dog bite left a scar on my face when I was young, and my mom offered to get me plastic surgery to remove it when I was about thirteen. I told them that I declined my mom’s offer as a small rebellion.
I am used to talking at that level of depth for extended periods of time, but it was my first time revealing that much with this particular friend. I was still sussing out how they’d respond.
My friend was reacting in a generally positive way with active-listening body language, but it was what they said that made it obvious to me that they would be open to hearing this level of depth again: “Thanks for telling me.”
It was so simple. It felt like it shouldn’t have made that big of a difference, but it did.
I could have guessed by my friend’s body language that they were interested, but hearing those explicit words made it so that weeks later, when I was considering whom I should talk to about a struggle I was going through at the time (which feels more vulnerable to me than talking about things I’ve gone through in the past), I didn’t hesitate to talk to them honestly about it.
My friend had clearly demonstrated that not only are they comfortable with open and vulnerable sharing, but they appreciate it.
My friend's "thank you for sharing" served as concrete evidence that I could hold onto when the risky possibility of vulnerability led me to question whether anyone would actually be up for hearing what was going on for me.
When a friend of yours is struggling, it can be easy for them to think that nobody wants to hear their problems, and they might avoid having crucial conversations with you as a result. When a coworker has some critical feedback to give you, but they imagine it’ll be hard and uncomfortable to deliver it, it can be easy for them to talk themselves into thinking you are not interested in hearing it, and they may sacrifice an opportunity to help you grow.
If you consistently say, “Thanks for telling me,” you directly reward vulnerability in a way that makes it much likelier for people to open up to you again in the future, even when it’s challenging.
So the next time your friend shares something that’s more personal than usual, before you go into your wonderful supportive listening, try saying, “Thanks for telling me.” The next time someone tells you they’re annoyed at you for something, before you address it, thank them for telling you. The words may feel foreign as they come out of your mouth, but those words may help someone be honest the next time they're deicing whether they want to tell you the easier, candy-coated version of reality, or the truth.
Have you had any experience with those magic words, either delivering them or receiving them? Let us know in the comments!