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“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

Mom always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

She didn’t mean that we couldn’t disagree, discipline or even tell the truth – but there is a way to communicate that isn’t derogatory, hurtful or intentionally inflammatory. The sarcasm or brutal honesty characterized by The Simpsons or American Idol, is not appropriate behavior for “real” life. They are after wild ratings, we need to be about workable relationships. What’s wrong with being “nice” anyway? At the end of my career or my life, I would prefer to be remembered as an amiable person rather than the Queen of Mean.

In public service, this adage is particularly applicable. An Assistant City Manager or Department Director cannot be free from public criticism – sometimes harsh and emotional. I got a lot of practice with this concept while working in those offices and drafting their responses to complaint letters. Every correspondence began with “thank you,” which set the tone for everything that followed. I learned very quickly how my attitude could be adjusted simply by reframing my mindset before putting pen to paper.

OK, it’s not as hard to manage our communication when we have the luxury of time to think and respond in writing. Thinking before we speak really is the key and the only way to be prepared to respond in a civil way – in the heat of a moment – is by practice. Just as an athlete trains his/her body to respond with perfect technique automatically in any situation, we too need to develop similar muscle memory over our mouths. Start a day with the intention to think before you respond and then, to let the first thing you say be constructive, not destructive. Intentional living is the foundation for the House of Niceness.

Likewise, at the end of the day, evaluate your performance and resolve to make adjustments tomorrow. We don’t hit a home run every time, but a great hitter keeps trying. In college, I was the statistician for our baseball team. I was astounded at how clearly and exactly each player could recall their every at-bat, location of a hit, circumstance of an error, what they were thinking and how they felt at any given moment of the entire game – for weeks to follow. Memory is a consequence of attention. As they were intent on correcting any misstep and building on each successful movement, so should we have the intention to do the same in our communication.

Be careful, too, not to fall into the “but” preposition / proposition. Have you ever said something positive to or about someone, only to follow the statement with a “but [what you really think]?” You might as well not have made the complementary phrase at all – it only served to make you feel better about yourself. Just kick the “but” out of your vocabulary whenever possible. What does it really mean anyway?

Don’t get me wrong, I know it is not always easy to say something nice, whether in response to a criticism or a difficult personality, but good relationships are not easy. There are definitely times when the “don’t say anything at all” part is necessary – bite your tongue, walk away. You always have the opportunity to come back and have a more thoughtful discussion later. You can never take back thoughtless words that you are very likely to regret later.

See more of Mom’s Rules at http://myblog.impactyour.biz/

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Nina Adrianna

Yeah my mom said that too. So did my teachers. It makes for a population that listens to authority way too much. Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift. Old School thinking isn’t always Right any more.

In my experience, we are too nice to each other in the public service. We do a super good job rewarding ourselves and celebrating what we’re good at, but then when someone points out things that are uncomfortable and not easy to hear, it’s labelled as ‘Not Nice.’

My suggestion is for people to build their armour and learn how to not take things so personally, especially in a work setting.

There is good reason for people to be ‘not nice’ in those letters you read.

The public is angry and so the letters you receive are likely a manifestation of the intense frustration that people have with the faux democracy that is in place. It is likely one of the only ways they can express their anger. Is your intent to tell those people that everything is A-OK, when things are crumbling? Maybe instead of saying ‘thank-you’ and dismissing the emotions and real problems underlying the letters, you could have a conversation with them about the source of their ‘not niceness’.

Government shouldn’t be about telling people to shut up just because a message might not be Nice.

Sue Breland

I’m of the opinion that respectful language in our public conversation is never out of style. It is not a matter of responding to authority, but of personal responsibility. Being “nice” does not mean being a doormat, but rather having the strength of character and thick enough skin to respond in a civil way. People certainly are angry and with good reason, but escalating the issue through a mirror response, or ignoring the issue, does not diffuse the situation nor allow for solutions to be discussed.

When I respond to complaints with a “thank you,” it is not a patronizing gesture, but a sincere acknowledgment of their concerns and appreciation that they have taken the time to engage with their government officials one-on-one – that makes for a discussion, rather than simply shouting out loud to the universe. Almost without exception, I received follow up responses from those citizens either by letter or phone with a much calmer demeanor, grateful for being heard, and often with further questions that we could continue to work on together. That is my definition of being “nice.”

No one should be told, or even made to feel that they are being told, to “shut up” – that is exactly an example of the language that must stop, whether between coworkers or with the public citizenry. The paradigm shift that I support is to move from the shouting at one another to having the courage to work with each other in a civil arena, as this is the only way to move forward to positive solutions.

Brenda Price

If you can’t say anything nice, you should be prepared to explain why the system isn’t working and how it could be improved. Going in with the attitude that the complaintant wants to improve the system will prove much more effective at working toward improvement than assuming that it’s a personal attack out of frustration. Sometimes people who complain are dismissed out of hand because they haven’t expressed themselves clearly. By responding with questions, you are not only trying to improve the system from the outside view, you are also guiding that person how to effectively communicate concerns in the future. It takes some digging to decide if the person wants an improvement or just to vent.