About Emotional Mastery

How to give tough love

Giving tough love can be terrifying. But if you truly care about someone, you must be prepared to help them face the uncomfortable facts

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Most people are terrible at giving advice. They mean well, but either they hesitate to speak the truth that needs to be said or they completely screw up the delivery.

Still, it’s always worth it. Especially if you care about the person you’re trying to help.

People aren’t getting any smarter. Wisdom gained the hard way needs to be shared. More, now than ever, people need tough love to keep themselves out of tough sports in life.

The term “tough love” makes a lot of people cringe.

They picture imagine being assaulted with ultimatums, demands, and heartless direction. While quality advice does often force you to pick between two paths and this choice is motivated with tough love, many people go about it the wrong way. Both family and friends dish out the truth so harshly that people dread it for the rest of their lives.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There are good, smart, compassionate ways to deliver tough love. Before I show you what to do, let’s talk about the ways so many people get it wrong.

What Tough Love Is Not

Tough love is not an excuse to crap on the people around you.

If you’re spitting venom at friends and blasting family members with nasty comments, that’s not tough love. You’re venting anger. You come across bitter, the opposite of helpful. All tough, no love. 

Tough love is not your chance to dunk on someone either. If you’re bubbling with glee while triggering somebody with “the facts,” you’re a vindictive asshole. Again, no love.

Finally, tough love is not abuse.

Some people don’t tell the harsh truth because they’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Or they feel like they’d be kicking someone who’s already down. The point of tough love is to do genuine good; not to harm. If you’re holding back the truth from someone who needs to hear it, you’re hurting more than helping.

That’s called enabling. It’s abusive, plain and simple.

What Tough Love Is

Tough love is gently telling someone a bitter truth that hurts in the short term but helps in the long run.

The keyword is “love.” You’re treating someone with absolute love. I would even call it unconditional love.

You’re placing no conditions on your advice. If that means the other person ends the relationship because you’re speaking the truth from a place of love, so be it. Your integrity and their well-being is that important. You can only give tough love when your love for the person exceeds your love of the relationship, because there’s a real chance you could lose the person.

Tough love is rough for both of you.

If you care about someone, it’s worth it. Painful truth is sometimes the only way to help them. Tough love will probably make you their enemy before it makes you their friend. You’re going to hurt them, and that risks making them angry—or worse.

Do not give out tough love expecting to be thanked. Give tough love because you want the other person to be free from their delusions, even if it means you lose the relationship. If you do, it’s their loss more than yours.

How to Give Tough Love

Once you’re resolved to tell a painful truth, take a tactful approach. Here are some tips to help.

Use direct and honest language. This prevents misunderstanding. It also prevents useless follow-up questions. I’m always annoyed by how long it takes for an advice-giver to make their point. For example, “I believe you should break up with that person, and here’s why,” is more direct than saying “Well, I’m not sure what you should do, but if I were you, I might reconsider my future with that person. Maybe.”

Make yourself as clear as possible because the other person may bristle up after your opening statement. Get the truth out there in the best way possible—telling it in no uncertain terms. 

Know your reasons. Advice is just an opinion. Even if that opinion is based on solid experience or observation, it’s not a fact. Therefore, it helps if you can back up your position with a reasonable argument.

Don’t just tell someone to dump their girlfriend because you don’t like her. Remind your loved one how she’s been unfaithful and disrespected you in public. Your argument may not be the most “correct,” but that doesn’t matter.

Logical reasoning is powerful, but ultimately, people are emotional beings. This leads to my next tip.

Appeal to emotions. People do what is easiest. Even given all the facts, they take the path of least resistance. Anyone who’s tried to pull someone out of a shitty relationship knows this too well. The conversation goes like this.

“Yeah, I know that person is bad for me. I need to stop seeing them, but what if . . .”

And that’s only if they agree with you. If they disagree with you, they didn’t want your advice. There may be a million reasons why a person needs to take action, but they’ll only budge when they’re ready.

There are a few rules to follow when you decide how to present your painful truth. Obey all these to cut past the logic and make your emotional appeal.

  • People hate public humiliation more than being wrong. Use that.
  • Shame is the world’s most powerful motivator for behavior change. Name and shame.
  • People fear losing more than they fear not gaining. Bring that fear to the surface.

Tailor your arguments to these angles. Point out how the problem makes them appear to others, help your friend or family member understand how it’s impacting their reputation, and explain what they’re losing as a result.

Only say it once. Give your advice, back it up with a sound argument, touch their emotions, and be done with it. Refuse to discuss the problem any further except to talk about how good the new advice is working.

If the other person respects your time, once a solution is given, you won’t hear the same complaint again. Once you give a person advice and they agree that it’s the best course to follow, it becomes a dead issue. If someone keeps asking for advice on the same problem but does nothing, you’re both wasting time.

Even if you’re doing everything else right, the person may still not come around. That’s fine. You can still value your time and theirs. That means don’t repeat yourself. Tell the truth only once.

Admit if you’re not the one. Giving tough love is not for everyone. Some people are simply too close to you, too volatile, or too unpredictable for an honest conversation. This is neither good nor bad, but it’s something to think about. It may be that someone else is the best candidate to present the tough love, not you.

Don’t take it personally. If someone gets angry at the truth you present, remember that this isn’t about you. People get emotional when they’re afraid of loss or when their addictions are challenged. You may not be able to pull your buddy away from his rude, crude girlfriend because deep down he believes she’s the best he can get. Trying to pry them apart will come across as a threat to his happiness, and he may lash out at you.

Be willing to lose the relationship. Don’t go into the talk with the goal of keeping your relationship intact. You might lose this person you love. And yet, you’re giving this painful truth precisely because you love them. Do what’s right for them, but recognize that may exclude you from their future. Do you love them, or do you love keeping them around? Get clear on your answer before you decide to show tough love.

How Tough Love Worked out for Me

I’ve had to give a lot of tough love in my life. One time I had to confront a family member about his risky lifestyle and poor money choices. He wouldn’t listen, so he kept spiraling. His terrible behaviors and my refusal to accept them eventually caused him to cut me off. As far as I can tell, he’s still doing the same dumb shit—and worse.

I had to give myself tough love about my alcohol problem. Tough love on yourself is more important than using tough love on the people you care about, because you’re often your own worst enemy. Learning to love yourself by accepting painful truths means you can break free from the lies you’ve been spinning.

For the first time, you can see your life the way it truly is. Only after I confronted myself about my problem did I muster the strength to recover. When I did that, my life changed for the better.

Summary of how to give tough love

  1. Use direct and honest language.
  2. Know your reasons.
  3. Appeal to emotions.
  4. Only say it once.
  5. Admit if you’re not the one.
  6. Don’t take it personally.
  7. Be willing to lose the relationship.

Giving tough love can be terrifying. But if you truly care about someone, you must be prepared to help them face the uncomfortable facts. Ready yourself for these conversations with the right mindset and the tips outlined above. Then pull that person aside somewhere private and give them your best shot.

If they love you back, you’ll discover a whole new depth of trust with that person—you know they can accept painful truth, and they know you love them enough to share it.

It’s worth the risk.


Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Further Reading

Life’s not fair. How to deal with it.
Why people hate you (5 most common reasons)
6 steps to letting go of a f*cked up past
Ed Latimore’s Forgiveness Quotes