The adage that tells us “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” sounds good and helpful, but it’s based on a false premise.
The assumption is that there are times when you can’t say something nice.
That’s just not true.
You can always say something nice. At times, it’s just hard. Like most worthwhile endeavors, it takes effort. But it’s worth it, because saying nothing at all seldom makes things better.
None of us like to be ignored or put off by other people. When we need to discuss something with someone, we want to have the discussion. When we have a question, we want an answer. When we send an email, we want a response.
But most of us have been guilty of simply not responding to another person’s meeting request, email, phone call, or whatever. We don’t know what to say or how to say it. We don’t have time. We can’t say anything nice. So we say nothing at all.
Just remember: Ignoring someone is a response. Saying nothing says something. Ironic, I know.
There might indeed be times when ignoring someone is the proper response. In most cases, however, responding with well-thought-out, appropriate words and actions prevents misunderstandings, corrects wrong perceptions, advances you and the other person toward your shared goals, and (perhaps most of all) demonstrates respect for the other person as a human being.
I know of no fail-proof way to respond nicely in difficult situations, but here are some principles worth considering.
Request more time
We often don’t immediately respond to a request because we don’t have time to provide an adequate response. So we hit the delay button. Too often, we forget to come back to it or we just keep hitting delay, delay, delay in hopes that the problem will magically go away.
A better option is to respond with a note promising to respond more fully later. I need to give this some thought, but I’ll get back to you on it. Please ping me in a few days if you haven’t heard from me.
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Practice due diligence
Challenging situations typically have layers of complexity and there can be unknown factors at the root of tensions. Do a little digging to make sure you are fully informed about the situation, circumstances, background, and the people involved. The more you know, the more empathetic and helpful you can be in your response.
Seek the nice
Your due diligence can include a search for the nice things to say and how to say them. Make a list of things you know to be true that apply to the situation, things you genuinely like about the people involved, and reasons why you care about a positive outcome. Think empathetically about what you need to say. If you have to deliver bad news or tough feedback, think about how you prefer to receive such messages, but also think about the other person’s personality. Try to figure out their “nice language” and speak it.
Rehearse your response
Off the cuff responses to contentuous situations are relational land mines. If you are writing a response, read it several times before sending it. In some cases, it helps to ask a confidant to read it and offer feedback. If you are meeting someone in person, write your response (or at least some notes) and practice what you plan to say – out loud so you’ll know how it sounds.
No matter how you decide to handle a difficult situation, remember that ignoring it is almost never the best response. Saying nothing says something. And it might not be what you want other people to hear.