When I was younger, I regularly looked after my neighbor’s cat. The cat had hyperthyroidism, so she was prescribed oral medication to take before each meal. My neighbor warned me the cat didn’t like taking her pills, but said she’d feel much worse if she was off her meds. The feeble feline was fairly frail as a result of her overactive thyroid, so I figured she couldn’t put up much of a fight even if she tried. But when I went to grab that pussy like my name was Donald Trump, the cat channeled the spirit of the late Meowhammad Ali. She thrashed, clawed, bit me, and even hid the tablets under her tongue to cough up after I walked away. I had her best interest in mind, but she could only infer from my approach that I wanted to hurt her.
I could have followed the path of least resistance by deciding to stop trying to give her the pills. Avoiding the situation altogether was the easiest, most painless solution for me, but ultimately it would have been a very selfish one that led to an even less undesirable outcome for both of us. Our interactions would have been harmonious on the surface, but the cat inevitably would’ve gotten sicker and before long, there would be no more cat for me to look after. I started thinking creatively about how I could make med adherence more mutually beneficial. Each pill was about the size of her favorite salmon-flavored pellets, so I began feeding her a few treats with the pill mixed in before I put out her food bowl. When I tried this method, the pills softened in her mouth first so that they were easier to swallow and tasted more pleasant. Our new system served us both because she started getting stronger and I walked away without a scratch.
While this is a literal example of delivering a hard pill to swallow, we’ve all likely had to do this in the figurative sense. Any relationship with depth carries the potential for having to relay bad news, express a difference of opinion, or have an otherwise awkward conversation—including the one about ending the relationship. It’s especially uncomfortable to have hard conversations with people we care about, as we risk becoming the target of resentment for causing them pain. We don’t want the burden of hurting someone on our shoulders, so we convince ourselves we don’t need to address these situations to avoid facing our own egos. (What’s a matter; cat got your tongue?) The downside of skipping a dose is that even though figurative pills can be hard to swallow, they’re delivered with the intent to mend the health of a relationship. If we don’t deliver them to preserve a superficial facade, the relationship will suffer more profoundly long-term.
On the other hand, if we hide the pill in a sea of salmon pellets, our recipient may get full before they swallow it. When we’re too sweet with our approach, the importance of our message dissolves into its sugar coating. It is critical to be direct and authentic in our delivery so that there is no doubt that the recipient absorbed the pill.
When I’m delivering a hard pill to swallow, it’s helpful for me to consider how the other person wishes to receive it. Rather than thinking about how I’m in the mood to deliver the message or even how I would want it delivered to me in a reversed scenario, I do my best to read the individual and take his or her perspective. I focus my efforts on articulating my thoughts in the manner that person will be most receptive to hearing. It’s not about manipulating someone by telling them what we think they want to hear; it’s about having the capacity to show empathy and the willingness to be vulnerable with someone whose wellbeing we value. If we force feed someone information the way we feel like saying it, they may respond combatively or defensively, which only reinforces their opposition. But if we avoid the truth or equivocate, we’re not communicating with their best interest in mind, either. Treating others as we want to be treated is a good rule of thumb with respect to common human decency, but there’s something to be said for treating others as they want to be treated, too.