Can I tell you one thing?

Last weekend I was in New Orleans with a bunch of booksellers and readers for the third year running, and it was a blast. (Readers: mark your calendars for September 2018, when this one-of-a-kind event moves to Tampa.)

On Sunday, during the Moveable Feast, I was on a nonfiction panel, and got to tell a roomful of booksellers and readers about my book. These aren’t the highest-of-high stakes—there’s no tightrope or trophy, nobody’s life is on the line—but they were certainly high enough to make me nervous. Based on what I said, readers would decide if they wanted to buy it, or share it, or read it. Booksellers would be deciding if they wanted to carry it in their store. Add in the always-potent combination of introversion + public speaking, and it was nervewracking.

But I love talking about books with my fellow readers, even when that book is my own (or that’s what I kept telling myself). And so, when it was my turn, I talked about my enduring love for even the most inane Buzzfeed personality quizzes (note to self: warming up the crowd with Ryan Gosling jokes is a winning strategy). I told about my longtime status as a capital-g Personality Geek.

I told about how understanding specific points about my own personality had changed my life, but how that information had been really hard to come by. I told them that Reading People was the book I wished I’d head—one that didn’t read like a psychology textbook, but felt like a friendly guide, making the most popular personality frameworks easy to understand and easy to apply.

True confession: whenever I’m talking to a crowd, I feel like that teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the one who drones on and on, with nobody listening. When the panel was over, I had no idea if I had said anything coherent, let alone helpful.

Later that night, long after my panel was over, I was debriefing the day with a fellow author—someone I admire, personally and professionally, who has become a friend over these past few years. Also: she’s awesome at what she does.

I told her I always feel like a blubbering idiot when I’m speaking, and she quickly said, No, not at all—and went on to list what I did right. This introvert has zero objectivity about the words coming out of her mouth in these kinds of settings, so of course I appreciated her assessment.

But as we were saying goodbye, she asked, Can I tell you one thing?

Of course, I said. And then she gave me specific advice about something I didn’t do, about how I fell short, about how I could have done better.

Readers, I don’t know what your experience has been like, but in my life, I’ve spent a lot of time with women who don’t tell each other the hard things. When one of us expresses concern about something we’re screwing up—a project, a relationship, a whole season of life—we’re extremely likely to tell each other some version of Don’t worry about it or I’m sure it’s fine.

This isn’t a terrible thing to hear, because we want it to be fine. We want our people to love us even if we’re afraid we’re screwing everything up.

But sometimes it’s not fine. Far from fine. And we need people in our lives who will actually say It’s not fine. Who will help us think through what we could be doing better, even if that situation isn’t as comfortable as I’m sure it’s fine. Who will tell us what we could do differently—better—if they have some idea of what that might be. These relationships take time to build; it takes a lot of history and a lot of trust to get to Can I tell you one thing? territory. But we need to get there.

Sometimes the thing we need to hear is a big deal (see: a relationship, a whole season of life). My experience in New Orleans? Not a huge deal. But since I left, I can’t stop thinking about how much I need relationships that make space for the bad, as well as the good. That let me be who I really am, and not some polished-for-appearances version of myself. Relationships where I know I can say I’m screwing it all up, trusting I’ll get an honest response, not I’m sure it’s fine.

Do you resonate with this experience? Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your stories about the “Can I tell you one thing?” conversations AND the “I’m sure it’s fine” conversations in comments.


Leave A Comment
  1. You’ve nailed it. Women tend to either deliver the negative critiques behind each others’ backs or not at all. Constructive criticism is too rare. For criticism to be constructive, however, it has to be specific and something that can be acted upon. Not just “you should be more assertive.”
    It also can be hard for straight-A, aim-to-please types to hear criticism of any kind. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity, we may feel threatened and get defensive.
    Eons ago, I set off for the Peace Corps with some sensible, long skirts and an assortment of tops that could mix and match. I wasn’t much older than some students, who because they attended school sporadically, when their families could pay the fees, took many extra years to get through high school. Discipline could have been better. It didn’t help that I refused to beat students who misbehaved. After some months, I became pretty close to some of them. One finally informed me that I was dressed wrong–my skirts and blouses were too similar to the student uniform. Get dresses, she said. I got a few, and my standing indeed went up immediately.

  2. Kris says:

    I do agree that we shy away from truth-telling, for many reasons — some valid, some not. In what felt to me like a God-moment, I said to a young woman who was both pastor and friend, that maybe she wasn’t called to pastor a congregation. In that moment I affirmed what she was feeling and it was a blessing for both of us. She and her husband, also a pastor, soon accepted a call to develop spiritual leaders in Australia and then China, in affiliation with an international ministry. I was so glad I had the courage not to tell her she was doing a fine job where she was.

  3. Allison says:

    The attendant issue, to me is, are we “teachable?” Are we open to the “one thing” others want to tell us? Granted, there are plenty of people who are critical just to be critical and so on, but that’s not the point here. We are talking about giving and receiving constructive criticism. I am more than willing to receive it if it is truthful, or if it comes from someone I respect.
    It is very hard when it is from someone who has authority over me, but I I do not respect that person (a few supervisors come to mind!).
    Ultimately, my most memorable moments have come when women I have greatly esteemed took the time to share their wisdom with me, and, in the course of those conversations, also gave me ideas and suggestions as to how I could live life better. BEST EVER!

    • Amy says:

      Allison – this is a great point – are we willing to hear the ‘one thing’ and to take it to heart, not as a criticism or sign of ‘meanness, jealousy, etc.’ but as a thoughtful response to whatever it is we’ve offered? I hesitate to offer feedback because I’ve faced women (and men) utterly unable to hear it. I’ve been there myself. Thanks for this comment. Amy

  4. Valerie says:

    I couldn’t agree more! I’m A-typical, I’m sure it will be fine. But I find that that’s not what people want; that’s NOT what I want. My daughter, who is 27 is excellent at constructive criticism – maybe it comes from living on her own since she moved to Tampa at 18 to go to school? So I am actually learning from her to be THAT person who will, diplomatically?, give the constructive criticism one asks for. I’m a work in progress, but so far in my experience it has worked and I’ve been thanked for it.

  5. Sarah Christy says:

    Anne, what a great story. I always need encouragement to “speak the truth in love.” I am pretty much a “straight shooter” and I work at doing it honestly and gently. I appreciate it when others are open and honest.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    “These relationships take time to build; it takes a lot of history and a lot of trust to get to Can I tell you one thing? territory. But we need to get there.” Yes! Essential to have these relationships and conversations, and essential to understand that it takes time and work to build that kind of trust.

  7. Judy Miller says:

    My husband was a professional inspirational/motivational speaker for 20 years. 1500+ talks (all word of mouth) 44 states, usually a standing ovation… small crowds to 12,000, now on uTube: Dan Miller live (the one with polio). As a member of National Speakers Association, he had heard it all. But, the best thing he heard was: ‘You were great, not slick’ from the person who hired him. As we pondered this comment, we realized, He was himself. Humble, approachable, loveable. Here is some advice. Be yourself, everyone else is taken!!! I ordered your book yesterday. Love your blog.

  8. Louise says:

    Last year, after leading my first Bible Study since high school, I sat down with my co-leader and asked her to tell me how I did. She started out with the usual, “Great, it was awesome, you have so much wisdom to impart …” I stopped her and said, “No, I know this goes against the grain because you’re an encourager, but I really need to know how I did, because if I am missing the mark anywhere I need to know so I can improve.” She was hugely uncomfortable but did manage to tell me one or two places that could have been better. And not only did it make the study stronger, it strengthened our friendship as well, because she knew that she could be honest with me without me getting hurt, and I knew that I could trust her to be honest and not just tell me nice platitudes. Sometimes being an encourager means telling people the not-great stuff in an encouraging way rather than only thinking of nice stuff to say.

  9. Jean Blythe says:

    Every time I talk in front of a group, I get that same feeling. I feel I’m losing their interest, I’m boring, who cares what I’m saying. So I hurry through and get off stage. I need a friend to tell me more than ” you were fine”. We all need a few friends like that.

  10. June says:

    I think many of us are still figuring it who we are, getting comfortable in our own skin. To receive criticism, even constructive, is hard to do when you don’t have a true sense of self to measure the suggestion against. If not, it’s so easy to sway back and forth with every suggestion, ESPECIALLY if you are an A-type people pleasing rule follower by nature. I so want to get to the point where I receive constructive criticism well, enough to take it and process it and really determine whether that thing that’s suggeted fits with who I am and what really does need to change. Granted, some things are straightforward and are always applicable and need to be said, but so much else is gray and based on how that person sees the world and all the “shoulds” in it. Still, I want to get to the point where it’s known that I can always receive constructive criticism, whether I use it or not.

  11. EHD says:

    I agree that we need space for honest feedback. Oftentimes, you can be blindsided when something blows up because no one told you it was a problem before. I think we need friends for this, but also need to find ways to make this more common in the workplace. Suggestions or corrections are often delivered in a punitive way or cause undue angst and political wrangling in response. If more people are willing to deliver honest, constructive feedback, then maybe we’d also get more used to receiving it and acting on it, rather than viewing it as insulting.

  12. Laura J says:

    Good for you for being open to constructive criticism. It can be hard to hear but I usually find I am glad when I open myself to an honest suggestion. There is a often a twinge of “ouch” involved. Thank you for sharing your story. How lucky to meet such a great person that was able to share with you.

  13. Nancy says:

    I really need to count my blessings here. In our particular circle of friends we tell the good as well as the not-so-good. We just came back from a luncheon and the discussion was the trauma from the hurricane. Although we are all incredibly blessed with very little damage (we all live in SW Florida) we are also incredibly traumatized. We spent the weeks prior to the actual storm listening to the weather channel and deciding what to, what do we take, where do we go, will we have a home? We sat down, someone said “how are you?” and when I replied…traumatized, it opened everyone up to discussion. I don’t feel quite so traumatized any more. Girlfriends, discussions and honesty are an incredible blessing.

  14. April says:

    I loved reading this article. Just yesterday I had a conversation not unlike yours, which left me pondering constantly over some things I was told. I was talking to a good friend about some issues one of my adult children is having. She listened intently to what I had to say, then when I was done she gave me her advice on how I could offer my help to my child. It was a little difficult to hear, im not gonna lie! But I am grateful to her for telling me what I needed to hear, even though I could’ve taken it negatively. I wish I could be as loving and honest with my close friends as she was with me. That is something I will strive to do. Thank you for this reminder!❤️

  15. Michael Ann says:

    YES YES YES!!! This is so important…and risky! I thank God for the friends who love me enough to do this for me. And I pray that God will always help me hear what they’re saying and not get defensive.

  16. Guy says:

    Anne, you nailed it. Woman or man, we all need to be ABLE to hear the hard feedback. Especially when given properly. It is one of the most important tools one can have. I do this quite a bit in my job. I once assigned each person to pick three people they wanted feedback from. One peer, one above them on the chain, one person who reports to them. Once a week they were to call or meet in order to give and receive feedback. The response was pretty amazing. The comments were pretty awesome three months later when I asked for anonymous feedback on the process. Five years later there have been mentor relationships still blooming with roots in this exercise. Some feedback I received was hard to hear, but it was honest and I used it to improve.

  17. Heidi says:

    So much yes. My family and I have been global nomads for much of my life (I was an Air Force brat, worked in the federal government, and am married to a federal employee), and love all the adventure and change and potential involved in moving every few years. One of the few things I don’t love about the lifestyle, though, is the difficulty in sustaining long-term relationships that can stay close enough long enough for the kind of trust you’re talking about to develop. It’s hard to be vulnerable or take risks with someone you’ve known a few months and may only live near for a year or two. I have a few long-term friendships with people to whom I feel like I can offer honest (constructive, hopefully!) criticism and from whom I welcome the same, but in the fifteen years since finishing college I’ve formed very few new relationships that lasted long enough or grew deep enough for that level of truth-telling.

  18. I asked one of my friends, who is known for her brutal honesty, what she really thought of my book and her answer was so refreshing. “You want the truth or you want BS?” is what she asked. I wanted the truth because I’m coming to learn, if I don’t have that, I can’t get better. And she actually loved the book–but she saw its weaknesses and they were the ones I had struggled with the whole time I wrote. Having someone openly talk that through with me was refreshing–and it shows the value of our friendship that she didn’t feel the need to pander to me. As women, we spend so much time trying to impress each other, that we rarely get to the other side of just being able to support one another.

  19. Heidi says:

    I just did this on Sunday! My best friend moved last year to a less metropolitan area, and has been moaning ever since about how she’s surrounded by country bumpkins, and also how lonely she feels. She came to visit this week and I was able to address her classism directly. I’m an enneagram 9, so it was scary for me to say something that might hurt her or cause conflict, but she took it pretty well, and our relationship is deep enough that she trusts me to not say something petty or spiteful and I trust her enough that if she says “lay it on me”, she means it. I’m pretty sure Brene Brown has already addressed this, that being willing to risk a friendship by offering (or asking for) constructive criticism is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do, and really can’t happen outside of authentic relationship.

  20. Marsha says:

    My desire is to empower others to be the very best version of themselves. I can only do that if I am giving honest feedback – sometimes that is through affirmation, at others it means discussing area where growth is possible.

  21. Lori Narlock says:

    Dear Anne,
    The more I read your blog the more I feel like I’m learning about a new friend. I love your style of writing–how genuine and transparent you are. And of course I love that you love books as much as I do.
    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us, your readers.

  22. Donna says:

    Hi Anne! I definitely agree!
    I’ve been learning that in public speaking, if you want to improve, you must do two things: 1) ask for honest feedback and 2) video yourself! and watch the video objectively! not to tear yourself down, but to honestly see how you could improve.

    I love how you often show us inside a writer’s world, with tips and web links that help us improve. I would love for you to do the same for public speaking… I know that it would really be of interest to me!

  23. SalliKay says:

    Read this today, Jan 1, 2018, from your email about your 2017 favorite posts. So very glad you wrote this and I read. God prompted me to email two beautiful sister/friends I have in my life that are these friends to me! Thank you for sharing how important it is to allow and love someone enough to hear them love you back, even with words that are constructive and not just always fluffy/positive!

  24. Kim says:

    Love this post and idea. We just have to be careful to put it through a filter of someone truly trusted and knowledgeable. I’ve had hard truths delivered but weren’t accurate and blamed myself for a long time.

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