[artist: Marc Scheff]
One common activity among all the various men’s circles that I’ve participated in since 1989 is delivering “hard truths”. A hard truth is when a person is unusually authentic and honest in giving another person feedback, in the form of giving a challenge, penetrating the listener with a different perspective that they may or may not enjoy hearing, and suggesting difficult changes that the speaker feels may help listener to be more mature, happy, and healthy.
Some examples of hard truths might be, “I don’t respect how much alcohol you have been drinking, and I suggest that you to develop a plan for sobriety or at least moderation”, “I don’t think that you will get a promotion at work until you emanate more of a self-confident vibe of leadership”, or “When you said last week that you would call me and then you didn’t call, I felt less trust for you”.
I once lead a training session for one of the men’s circles that I was a member of. And in the weeks before the training night, I thought to myself, “What do I want to share with these men that will be my deepest and most effective coaching around being an effective influence on another person – especially regarding the giving of hard truths”.
What I came up with was a talk about the importance of a balance of yang/masculine and yin/feminine energies. I have long thought that there are two kinds of love that we can give another person: there is what I call “woman love” – to accept a person as they are, to find them perfect in who they are and what they do, to deeply see and hear them, to receive them, and to hold space for them without making any demands or requests – and what I call “man love” – which, again, is to challenge the person, to penetrate them with a different perspective that they may or may not enjoy hearing, and to suggest changes that we feel may help them to be more mature, happy, and healthy. I think that being a positive influence in another’s life involves an interweaving of both of these kinds of love.
[“Ardhanarishvara” by H-D200HB]
As I prepared for my training, I copied down a section of Stephen Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, from the chapter on Habit Five, which is called, “Seek first to understand (listening – yin love), then to be understood (expressing oneself – yang love)”. I also wrote in my notes a quote by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: “You are perfect the way that you are (yin love), and you could also use a lot of improvement (yang love)”.
Being too yin/accepting loving of another person without much yang/challenging loving eventually becomes sleepy, mushy codependence that neither person grows from. I wanted to give a talk about finding balance between the two energies, however, specifically to advise avoiding the danger of delivering hard truths with too much yang, without a balancing energy of yin.
As I see it, delivering a hard truth is obviously a form of man/yang love, but, done effectively, it also has woman/yin love to it. If we just deliver a hard truth from our man/yang energy only without much care and openness – for example, criticism and close-hearted judgmentalism, trying to make another person measure up to our standards, trying to dominate or condescend, telling a person to make a change that they already are trying to make without first asking and caring about what challenges they are having in trying, repeatedly giving input that is not wanted, expressing passive-aggressiveness, defensiveness, jealousy, impatience, or resentment – then that is not “giving a hard truth”, it’s called “being a dick”.
A hard truth is first and foremost a “truth”, and the deep truth is, we all are lovable people doing the best that we can. So, a hard truth comes from that place and includes that perspective. The points of expressing a hard truth is not to attack a person, it is to try to remove a barrier that we have to connecting and trusting them, to try to be of service to them, to help them to feel freer and deeper in life, to help them to be more effective in life and achieve their goals more rapidly, and to help them to be more happy … in simple terms, to “love” the person (although, obviously, in more a challenging “man love” kind of way).
I was on an intense men’s team in 1992-95, and twice we spent an entire day cloistered up in one man’s house in the forest above Santa Cruz, each man sitting on the hot seat for an hour and receiving hard truths from every other man there. The first time, we just jumped right into the exercise and got ripping. During that day, and months afterwards, there was a feeling of bad energy, shame, mistrust, and pain in the group.
About a year later, the second time we did a full day of speaking hard truths, we instead started the day with an hour of reading poems on the subject of the lovability and perfection of each human and on the importance of being kind, and then we had a group discussion on those topics. In other words, we generated a space of some yin/woman love before getting into the yang/man love hard truths. After that full day of speaking and hearing hard truths, there were feelings of love, connection, trust, relaxation, and even bliss and euphoria in the space.
On that day, from what the other men said, I learned some helpful things about my impact on the people around me that was new information, that I did not already know, and got some suggestions for changing behavior that helped me to have better relationships with the others. It also felt great to be able to tell all the other men things that they did that I found unpleasant or that I thought were counterproductive, and have them hear me with openness and acceptance. Because we started the day setting a context of yin energy to hold the yang, the challenging feedback we expressed was delivered and received with more kindness and openness than the first time we did the exercise.
After that day, our team had closer, more trusting, and more positive relationships, we expanded into greater intimacy and emotional depth, and men actually did make some positive changes based on the challenges that they received in good faith and with compassion. Those results are exactly the goals of delivering hard truths.