If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all! Really?

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Communicate Assertively Not Silently!

The misconception of the expression “If you can’t say something nice,  say nothing at all!”

When does it apply?

What can Thumper teach Trump? Did Trump read the story Bambi?  I’m not sure if New Yorkers read the story of Bambi, they might have,  but certainly did not adopt Thumper’s philosophy.  However, San Diegans certainly read it and adopted the philosophy promoted by Thumper’s father. After twenty years in San Diego, I can understand the fascination of the American people with Trump’s style of communication. People are resentful of “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”  Now, the pendulum is swinging all the way to “If you can’t say something nice, just say it as is.” People perceive it to be authentic and genuine. However, what if there is an in-between philosophy that can change your relationships and leadership?

I consider myself fortunate to have lived among diverse cultures and communities across two continents. Language, customs and traditions were as varied as communication styles.

I was born in Dagestan, located in southern Russia.  Our family lived amidst a mostly Muslim society, heavily influenced by Islamic values and beliefs.  Weighed by centuries of tradition, these customs often dictate the many restrictions imposed on women.

Shortly after I turned six, my family and I immigrated to Israel.  There, we met an entirely different culture whose communication style was direct, to the point, confident, and often perceived as aggressive and assertive.  Niceties and over-politeness were unnecessary and looked upon as a weakness.

When I was eighteen, our family moved to Brooklyn, New York, a cultural “wild west” and the Babel of communication styles.  Thus, accustomed to being direct and somewhat aggressive, did not seem odd or out of place.  This was, after all, NEW YORK!

The biggest shock, however, took place when I eventually moved to San Diego, California. After having spent eleven years in New York, I felt I was in a different country, having to adapt to a communication style that felt foreign to me.  I felt as if it was a coded language.  Somehow, I had to decode the message between the lines.

I quickly understood that people didn’t quite say what they thought or felt.  Being nice and polite far outweighed the need to accurately express yourself.  I was confused by this, rather saddened to the point where I  bordered on a mild depression.

I developed a thirst for meaningful, controversial or thought-evoking conversation.  In my communication exchange with friends and acquaintances, I would often find, oddly enough, that my thoughts and ideas were aligned with theirs.  People would mostly agree with my thoughts, except, unbeknownst to me. They felt differently and opted to either agree or stay silent.  I wasn’t used to this mode of interaction.  Eventually, I grew hungry for honest, passionate, and meaningful discussions.

Time went on, and I became more frustrated and conflicted.  I wasn’t sure when and how to say what.  I came to realize that silence meant either apathy or disagreement.  Unable to communicate freely and openly, I grew confused and began questioning my communication style.  I began hesitating and becoming cautious with my words.

Then, two major changes took place in my life.  I ventured into the business world as an entrepreneur and also became a mom.  Straddling between these two incongruous roles was needless to say, a bit challenging.  Nonetheless, I pushed forward.  As a communications consultant, I was involved in running leadership development workshops aimed at management and women in general.  That’s when things began clicking for me.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I had been preparing a workshop for management-level engineers entitled “Communicate Assertively and Confidently!”  One afternoon, as I switched hats to my second role, I began reading the story of Bambi to my daughter.

In the story, Bambi’s mom tells Thumper “…If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”  Then, all of a sudden, I made a connection.  Interestingly enough, this statement encapsulated the behavior exhibited by several of my workshop’s attendees.  They felt constrained or impaired by a communication style that prevented the free expression of their opinions and the open exchange of ideas.  That was my epiphany moment.  It wasn’t about “saying nothing at all”—that ran totally against my grain!  And so, the Bambi expression, now transformed, found its way into my workshop: “If you have nothing nice to say, say it nicely.”

Suddenly, I felt liberated and empowered!  I had discovered the essence of the passive-aggressive communication style.  It was the root cause of the deterioration pattern in many relationships.  The belief or habit whereby people engage in a passive-aggressive exchange leads eventually to resentment, anger, distance, isolation, and, ultimately, to the breakup of marriages, friendships and relationships—often, over plain silly stuff.

So here are my tips to those of you conflicted about how to effectively deliver your controversial message or engage in honest discussion:

To start, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this exchange? What am I trying to accomplish? Why is it important to me?

If the exchange involves casual entertainment or light social conversation, don’t get into the nitty gritty, just let go!

If, instead, you’re resolving an issue, making a key decision, influencing, persuading, gaining buy-in, or intending on developing a meaningful relationship, then follow these simple rules:

  1. If you disagree, ask specific questions to clarify and understand the gap between your differing positions. Start by embracing the points you do agree upon and then ask specific questions about what you see as misalignments or gaps.
  2. If you continue to disagree, share a story, experience or article to support your point of view, but—be sure to end your statement with a question.
  3. Having expressed your thoughts, gracefully asking for feedback is viewed by your counterpart as a return of control and power. It allows both sides to realign thoughts and feelings. This enhances the parties’ ability to reach a mutually agreeable solution.  If agreement is not within sight, respectful disagreement is the most viable solution with an opportunity to perhaps revisit the topic at a different time.
  4. One other piece of advice is to never argue with people’s feelings or beliefs. You certainly can argue about facts.  But you cannot mandate how or what someone should feel or believe.  Doing so will lead, most often than not, to a deadlock or unnecessary conflict.  The reasonable response is to accept your counterpart’s feelings or beliefs and share your alternate view by sharing your experience or a story that illustrate the alternative.
  5. Lastly, when you disagree, deliver the message softly. Softly means to lower you tone and speak a bit slower. This type of delivery is perceived that you remain flexible and collaborative.

Honesty in communication and the conveyance of true feelings frees us from inner-conflict and empowers us to lead a more confident and meaningful life.  Silence is never the answer as it implies that you simply don’t care.  Caring involves risk and undertaking risk involves courage.  The potential reward, however, is the opportunity to repair, move forward and make a difference.

bottom line

In conclusion, people who practice Thumper’s communication style harbor resentment, insecure, and build relationships that are fragile and superficial. People who practice Trump’s communication style build relationships driven by controlling others and instilling fear which consequently spreads cancer in their relationships. But those who master “if you can’t say something nice to say, say it nicely!” develop and maintain strong and authentic relationships. “Say it nicely” with a purpose to influence and empower others.

Note that there will be people who are threatened no matter how nice is your delivery! In essence it’s their insecurity. Give them their space to grow and mature!

Speak up assertively and act prudently!

Communicate Assertively!

“If you can’t say something nice,  say it nicely!”


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