We learn the adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” as kids, which perhaps is appropriate to the kindergarten context. However, many of us carry around the adage like a rule throughout our lives and into every context, job, and relationship, which causes confusion, ineffectiveness, mediocrity, and even cruelty. What if the most generous thing to say doesn’t sound “nice” on the surface?
As with most things, we have to look below the surface to find the meaning.
At work and in leadership, the implications of this adage are far-reaching and disastrous. We’ve been socialized by the adage and associated attitudes to believe that direct communication is unprofessional, inappropriate, impolite, “too assertive” (mostly related to women), and leads to an emotionally charged conflict.
In reality, when we avoid direct communication, the thing that we need to be different is still there, it is just running in the background or working below the surface – festering. When we bring it to the surface, it can be addressed. This requires communication with compassion and candor.
Compassion in Workplace Communication
Many people think that compassion and empathy are synonymous. The truth is that compassion takes empathy a step further. According to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, compassion is defined as, “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Compassion involves a motivation to act.
The obvious image of compassion is when you see someone upset, you approach them and see if you can help – either by listening or otherwise lending a hand. A less obvious, but also compassionate image is when you see someone struggling with something at work or falling short in some way, and you take a step to support them by giving them some feedback. Making someone aware that they need to work on something is the gift of giving them a chance to grow, learn, and improve. Compassion at work may also come into play when the team or organization you are working in is suffering in some way, and something (X) needs to be addressed in order to support the team or organization. Addressing pain point X and telling colleagues what they need to hear may be difficult for a variety of reasons, but it is important to see this as a compassionate act. A gift.
Your job as a leader is to deliver this gift in the way it is intended – with a compassionate tone and language, so the other person can actually hear it. Without the obvious intention and spirit of compassion, relationships suffer and candid communication can fall on defensive – and deaf – ears.
Candor in Workplace Communication
Some people have higher reserve than others, meaning they don’t hold back what is on their mind. For them, candor – the quality of being direct, open, and honest in communication – is second nature. When leaders and teams are forthright, frank, and transparent at work, it leads to a free flow of information, ideas, and perspectives. Teams with high psychological safety do this skillfully because there is a strong foundation of trust.
Without candor, communication becomes ineffective and confusing, relationships and teams lack trust, transparency is missing, and therefore results suffer. In order to collaborate effectively with others and deliver high-quality work, people must be able to share opposing viewpoints, give and receive difficult feedback, and debate and challenge one another.
It is your responsibility as a leader to model both compassion and candor – to communicate what’s needed and in a way that will reach the person effectively. Without it, we cannot grow as people, teams, and organizations.
6 Common Mistakes Leaders Make When They Need to Communicate Something Difficult
There are many mistakes leaders make in communicating, mostly related to lacking either compassion or candor – in some cases lacking both compassion and candor. Let’s take a look at the most common mistakes. Likely you have seen (or perhaps exhibited) these behaviors in action many times.
If you sugarcoat the feedback too much, the meaning of what you are saying won’t get through and in some extreme cases, they will take it as positive feedback and continue or repeat the precise thing you are trying to help them avoid. Missing: Candor
Many with people-pleasing tendencies want to avoid perceived conflict at all costs – even when the cost is high-level work. The result is often mediocrity, apathy, unmet expectations, and a team of people who are stagnant, apathetic, and chock-full of blind spots. Missing: Compassion and Candor (and Courage!)
Being Too Ambiguous
Many leaders are afraid to get specific, fearing conflict and/or emotions will arise. In reality, not all direct communication leads to conflict – and sometimes conflict is necessary in order to achieve results. When leaders give feedback that is too ambiguous, the result is often confusion and extended frustration. Missing: Candor
Delivering Too Aggressively
Candor is critical when it comes to feedback, but empathy and compassion are also important considerations. Many leaders don’t consider the tone, language, or context when offering difficult feedback and come across too harsh. The result can be a bruised relationship and unmotivated employees. Missing: Compassion
Sometimes when an employee exceeds expectations in some areas, leaders rationalize that they get a pass in other areas where they may be falling short. In these cases, potential is being limited and left on the table. Who says one cannot exceed expectations everywhere? Missing: Compassion and Candor (and Courage!)
Discussing with the Wrong Person/People
While venting to others may feel good, it can be destructive to go there. If you only have the courage to talk about the problem or conflict with the people who agree with you, nothing changes and relationships suffer. Plus, no one likes gossip. Missing: Compassion and Candor
The Problem with the Age-Old Adage
If we look at the adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything,” it lacks both compassion and candor. Candor is missing because the direct communication is avoided. There is also no motivation or action taking place to right whatever wrong or suffering is taking place, which is where compassion is missing.
If you see a colleague doing something wrong or behaving in a way that causes them, the team, or the organization harm or a poor outcome, the compassionate thing would be to take a step toward righting the wrong. In this case, bring awareness of the mistake or misstep, and do it in a way where you are clear on the What, forthright about the Why, and kind about the Way.
The New Adage for Work
Brené Brown, social psychologist and bestselling author, said it best in her ubiquitous quote, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind” from her book, Dare to Lead. I propose we replace the “If you don’t have anything nice to say….” adage with Brown’s language on clarity here, acknowledging that it is more destructive to let some things go unsaid. If you are willing to take the time to strategize on how to communicate a difficult thing clearly and risk feeling uncomfortable as you say it, it means you care about the person, the relationship, the organization, and you want to help them grow in a place where they are struggling.
If you choose silence and avoidance, it means you don’t care enough about the person, the relationship, or the work itself to put your energy into communicating what needs to be said. And when you let it fester, resentment, unproductive habits, and mediocrity breed. Liane Davey, organizational psychologist and author, calls this Conflict Debt, which she says, “Is much more harmful than conflict itself.” Running away from conflict or avoiding a conversation that needs to be had can impact productivity, relationships, team trust, innovation, and more.
How can you help yourself and others in your organization see clear as kind, and direct communication as a gift with a compassionate and generous intention?
How to Balance Both Compassion and Candor to Communicate Something Difficult
You cannot control how someone will receive the direct communication or feedback you offer. You can, however, ensure you deliver it a way that gives you the highest likelihood that they will hear it. Here are seven tips.
Ask Permission and State Your Intention First
You can disarm someone from getting defensive if you offer your intention right from the start, and also ask permission.
Example: “Hey so and so, may I give you some feedback on what just happened, with the intention of helping you improve your x, y and z?” Only proceed if they agree.
Make Sure the Timing and Context Is Right
Is this the right time to be delivering the message? What is the mood of the person going into the discussion? The right conversation in the wrong mood may be the wrong conversation. Also, privacy may be a consideration. If you sense it is important to the other person, don’t have unnecessary people present.
Pay Attention to HOW, Not Just WHAT You Communicate
You have to be mindful of HOW you communicate the message. What is your tone like? How is your body language coming across? Is what you are saying aligned with how you are saying it?
Frame Feedback as a Gift
Share that you always appreciate being on the receiving end of direct feedback, and your intention in sharing this is because you care and want to support their development.
Set realistic expectations that you may encounter some resistance. If you expect it and set yourself up to work with it, not against it, it’s easier to control your own emotions in difficult conversations. Share what is going on from your perspective and if you sense resistance, ask, “What would a good solution look like?” or “Where should we go from here?” giving them some agency in the situation.
Often people think they are much clearer than they actually are. Run your message by a neutral third party, if possible, to get feedback on how clear your communication actually is. Constantly ask yourself, “How can I be more clear here?”
Listen, Listen, and Listen More
You can’t argue with someone when you don’t truly understand their point of view. Begin a conversation where you expect friction, with an open ear, mind, and heart. Paraphrasing and validating their perspective shows that you are listening. When you put in effort to understand them and how they think and feel, it tends to suck the negative energy out of the conversation, having a neutralizing effect.
Plus, if you want someone to listen to your point of view, you have to give them the gift of listening to theirs. This is Cialidni’s principle of reciprocity in action. To influence someone to do something, first give them something so they feel like they owe you. In this case, give them an open ear, and they will give you theirs.
The Bottom Line
We must cleanse our organizations of the negative stigma that direct communication, feedback, and conflict connote, and replace it with the sense of generosity and productivity. Saying something that needs to be said is a gift that strengthens the relationship, person, relationship, team, and organization.
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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.