Seeing the best in life's challenges

No More Mr. Nice Guy

There’s that old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” It always seemed like a very good saying to me, but lately I’m not so sure.

We think of saying something that is “not nice” as being mean. And that might be the case. If a person is judging another, and they express that judgment, they would come up with some statement with the intent to put the other person down, criticize them, set them straight, prove them wrong, well, you get the idea. We are all familiar with these kinds of words.

But is the saying telling us that any kind of disagreement shouldn’t be expressed? Is it “not nice” to tell someone something they don’t want to hear?

Lately I’ve been observing people who only tell others what they want to hear (or what they think the other person wants to hear). And I’ve noticed people who get very upset when you give them honest feedback about something, that they don’t want to hear.

Many people would rather be “nice” than honest.

I think the saying needs some clarification:

If you can’t say something with kindness and without judgment, don’t say anything at all.

The presence or absence of judgment makes all the difference here. You have to work to minimize or eliminate judgment to have the kind of honest, safe, helpful communication that, to me, is the goal.

When your priority is to be “nice” and that includes avoiding disagreement and conflict, what you get is fake communication and pretend relationships.

It’s no big deal when you are interacting with people on a superficial basis – you see someone you don’t know doing something you don’t agree with, but it’s none of your business and it doesn’t affect you…..there is no need to put in your two cents. (Even though lots of people are into doing just that these days.)

But I’m thinking about relationships between people that interact on a regular basis — good friends, family members, or co-workers. If you can’t be honest, then there is no way, in the long term, that your relationships can deepen and develop trust. They will remain superficial. You can’t count on someone who isn’t telling you the truth.

When you are surrounded by others who are very similar to you, there is less conflict or disagreement, and it is very easy to just “get along” and be nice.

But our interactions with others these days are more and more likely to include contact with people who are not “like us” and as a result, more conflicts will occur. This can be seen as an opportunity to develop the communication skills that allow us to be honest and kind at the same time.

Those communication skills go both ways – we not only have to learn how to express honest feedback with kindness, we also have to learn to listen to and accept honest communication.

If you anticipate that an honest comment comes with an underlying judgment, you will get defensive. So you have to learn to pay attention so you can figure out whether the person is really being judgmental or not. Is this comment coming from someone who is judgmental, always telling other people what they should do, and criticizing people? Then it is more likely that the comment is judgmental.  Maybe the person is just being mean, and you should just ignore them.

However, what happens when you get feedback that you don’t like, maybe it stings, you definitely don’t want to hear it……but it comes from someone who you know loves you and wants what’s best for you, and is normally a kind person? At that point, you might try to figure out if something set that person off, or if maybe you should consider that their comment might be worth contemplating.

I live in a family unit of five very different personalities, but I can say that our family culture is very honest. This has been an adjustment for me, since I came from a very “nice” family. So I have spent a lot of time learning to be direct and honest, while still being kind. I’m not saying I have it all figured out and that I always do a good job…..but it’s a process I’ve been consciously working on. And because of that, I observe this issue all around me.

Other parents are amazed when they hear about the level of open communication we have with our kids. We definitely have lots of practice dealing with conflict, but we do it in an honest way, and our kids know that it is safe to speak their minds. There is no question in my mind that this is one of the life lessons I am here to work on. In a way, it feels like I live in a lab experiment! I have learned so much from the souls in my family.

I try hard to see these dynamics without judgment. Instead of thinking that people “should be” one way or another (and people tend to think others “should” be like they are), I see that we are all unique individuals with different personalities, and there is no reason why we can’t learn to interact with others while respecting their approaches.

Those who grew up in a culture of “nice” tend to be the pleasers, the peacemakers, the ones who have a problem saying “no.” If you want to develop an honest relationship with these people, you have to do what you can to convince them that it is safe to be honest. Try to communicate with kindness. But also realize that you can’t change them, they have to change themselves.

You can recognize the pleasers. They always say “yes” even if they are already over-committed and there is no way they can do what they just agreed to do. They anticipate the needs of others, and put those needs before their own.

The “opposite” type person is what I would call a self-advocate. They are clear what they think and what they want, and they don’t hesitate to express any of that. Just because they are direct, doesn’t mean they aren’t open to another view. You have to meet this person where they are, and communicate directly.

Most people aren’t all one or the other. Depending on the situation and who we are with, we might take on different roles. And both approaches are important.

As always, it’s about balance. There are times when we need to set our own needs aside and help and support others. There are also times when we need to set boundaries and say no. There are times when we need to love ourselves enough to advocate for our own needs and focus on ourselves above others.

Are you aware of when you have been dishonest, just to be nice and not disappoint someone? Are you aware of when you have been brutally honest, and didn’t deliver your feedback in a kind way?

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Always Be Nice!

Everybody likes nice people.

But what does it mean to be “nice,” anyway?  We know it when we see it, but how would you describe a nice person?

Here’s my list of what “nice” meant to me growing up:

Be kind.

Don’t cause problems or conflict.

Don’t criticize.  If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.

Don’t hurt another’s feelings.

Do what you can to get along with others.

Don’t complain if it’s not really important.

Be grateful for what you have.

Have a positive attitude.  Smile.

Be encouraging of others.

Put others before yourself.  Don’t be selfish.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

My mom’s mantra was “Always Be Nice.”  We would roll our eyes when she said it, but if you ask me, I would say that I agree with what she was saying.  It’s a good thing to be nice.

I was a nice kid.  I did get along with everyone.  I didn’t make waves or question authority or cause any trouble or stir anything up. I grew up in a nice family, with nice parents and grandparents, and nice sisters.  My extended family growing up was nice, too.  Nice, nice, nice.  I was lucky to have a happy childhood, free of almost any conflict.

For as long as I can remember, I always thought, why doesn’t everyone see that if we were all just kind and nice to each other, the world would be so much better for everyone?  If we just put the Golden Rule into practice?

Nice people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt, and assume that others are nice, too.  But that’s not always the case.  And therein lies the problem.

I will always make it a priority to be nice.  But I have learned, through living life, that not everyone in the world has this approach.

Being nice works really, really well when you are surrounded by other nice people.

And isn’t that true about any homogenous group of people?  It’s easy to get along with people that are all the same.  If you surround yourself with people that are “like you” then you don’t have to think too much, you can assume that everyone has the same values and opinions, likes to do the same kinds of things, etc.  It’s safe to stay within your own group and not have to question much of anything.

The challenge is to get along or even just to co-exist with people that are different.  Our world is full of diversity, and getting along with all kinds of people is a necessity if you are going to thrive in the real world.

Can you be too nice?  I think the answer is yes.  This subject area is a primary life lesson that I have worked on and learned a lot about.

Learning to Just Say No.  Nice people tend to be tolerant and submissive.  They tend to go along and get along.  They are “pleasers.”  Avoidance of conflict can get to the point where nice people find themselves in situations with other people that are uncomfortable.  These situations tend to develop over time, and nice people can find themselves dug into a hole because they never set limits.

I know I had to learn not to over-commit to activities.  I have always been involved in “causes” and organizations, from being involved in student government, sports and other activities in high school, to my sorority in college, to Junior League, to volunteering at my kids’ schools, to political campaigns.  Because I had a hard time saying “no”, at times I would find myself without enough time in the day to do everything, something would slip, and I would disappoint others.  Since I didn’t set limits, I made things worse, because I might leave someone else in a bind.  I still hate saying no, but I make myself be realistic about what I can handle, and I don’t end up disappointing others.

Learning to Speak Up or Disagree. Marrying into a family of very straightforward, sometimes brutally honest people has been a very good thing for me.  There is a fine line between being Too Nice and being Dishonest.  If you don’t speak up, how can you blame the other person for not understanding where you’re coming from?  You can’t fault others for not being empathetic (or reading your mind).

Being around people who are strong self-advocates, who are clear about what they want, can sometimes be overwhelming for a “nice” person.  I have developed the ability to disagree with others who have strong opinions, without getting nasty about it.  Interestingly, my 3 kids are born self-advocates, so they have helped me with this lesson as well.

Learning to Deal with Conflict.  If nice means “avoid conflict” then there will be problems.  Life is full of conflict.  You can pretend the conflicts don’t exist, but we all know they will only get worse unless you face them and deal with them.  Developing communication skills is a huge help with this.  Being clear and making myself understood are “nice” strategies to deal with conflict.  Learning how to “agree to disagree” is an invaluable skill.

Learning to be a Self-Advocate. One problem is that nice people can become targets.  The extreme examples are the kids who get molested, who are targeted because they are weak and needy and unlikely to speak up.  But nice people also get taken advantage of by friends, co-workers, and significant others.  Sometimes nice people can get lost when immersed in the “real world”.  This might be at work, in social situations, or with extended family.  They end up doing more work, taking on more responsibility, and fixing more problems than their fair share.

I had to learn to speak up and advocate for myself in situations where my interests were not being considered.  This used to be very uncomfortable for me, because I didn’t have experience dealing with conflict growing up.  Practice has made me much better at this.

Nice people can tend to get very agitated when other people aren’t being nice.  They think that nice people are good and people that aren’t nice, well, they aren’t so nice and they are hard to understand.  Nice people can have a hard time dealing with others who take a different approach and just wish everyone was nice like them.

The thing is, everyone is different, and there are lots of approaches to life.  I can’t expect everyone to make “being nice” their highest priority.  Others may see “being honest” as the greatest virtue.  There are as many approaches to life as there are people.

So it all comes down to balance.  As I’ve grown from my own life experience, I’ve developed my own style of interacting with others.  I still make “being nice” a priority, but I am much more straightforward and honest, in a gentle way.  I am much more thoughtful about my own limitations and careful not to just say yes or agree to do something because I am trying to avoid conflict or just be nice.  I pay attention to whether I am being over-asked to take on responsibilities by others who aren’t doing their part.  I don’t get involved in situations I don’t agree with.

Now that I have developed a more “blended” style of being, I notice how uncomfortable direct honesty can be for some very nice people, even when that honesty is presented gently.  They can assume that there is an agenda behind the directness, or they may just not be used to what feels like conflict.  It can be very hard to communicate directly with some nice people I know.

And a strong nice person can be very frustrating for those who are used to pushing nice people around.  I just smile and stand my ground.

For me personally, this is what my Garden of Power and Love looks like.  I needed to embrace Strength as well as Niceness and blend the two in a way that uses the best of both.  It’s something I continue to work on and refine.