Many people have been taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. But not everything is nice nor deserving of suppression. This internal debate may help you clarify when to speak up and how:

Person: It’s not worth disagreeing. You rarely change anyone’s mind about anything important.

Alter ego: But if you simply agree all the time, you’re a milquetoast and nothing ever improves. Better to try, no?

Person: No. You generally just make the other person dislike you.

Alter ego: Isn’t a matter of how you word it?---Tact, dude, tact.

Person: But if you’re too tactful, you don’t create disequilibrium: jar his complacency on the issue. My cousin is a lousy parent. If I just say, “Gee, I’m wondering if just maybe your life would be a bit easier if you set a few more limits.”

Alter ego: You’d create plenty disequilibrium with that. All he’d hear is, “He thinks I’m a bad parent.”

Person: You’re right. And that’s true even if I said those carefully couched words in laid-back tones with relaxed body language. See? It’s not worth disagreeing.

Alter ego: What about when you think a person might be open to changing their behavior or at least their opinion?

Person: If I knew when that is, I wouldn’t be having this discussion with you.

Alter ego: The more open-minded the person, the more the person is already motivated to change, and the more s/he respects you, the more likely it’s worth saying something negative.

Person: So, like when my cousin, who thinks I’m smart, said he’s starting to worry he might have a problem with pot…

Alter ego: Right.

Person: But how would I word that so it creates sufficient disequilibrium yet doesn’t piss him off?

Alter ego: How’s this: “You mentioned you were concerned about how much weed you’re smoking. Is there any way I could help?”

Person: I like that: It made clear that the impetus came from him. I also liked that I asked it as a question and it didn’t sound like a leading question.

Alter ego: Correctamundo.

Person: But what about in a tougher situation? My cousin just announced his engagement to that idiot. If I say something, he could hate me forever, and it probably won’t change anything. But if I don’t say anything, I know he'll be miserable with Leslie and I’ll feel bad I didn’t do everything I could to stop him.

Alter ego: How could you say something with enough tact yet sufficiently be disequilibrating that he might give it additional thought?

Person: Maybe I could say, “I just read this PsychologyToday.com article that explores the criteria one should use in deciding whether to marry a person.”

Alter ego: He’d just get angry and say “I’ve already decided. You don’t like her, do you?!” A better approach might be to word it a little obfuscatorily: “I just saw this article about the good marriage. Would you like me to email it to you?”

Person: Asking would mean he’d need to affirmatively request it. What if I simply emailed to him?

Alter ego: That’s probably better.

Person: I’d love to also say something about his job. He’s going to be 30 soon. His parents spent all that money on college and if he stays a barista for much longer, he’ll never be able to convince an employer to hire him for something professional.

Alter ego: So how might you word that?

Person: Maybe at the right moment in a relaxed conversation, off-handedly ask him, “How’s work?”

Alter ego: He’ll probably just say, “Fine.” What then?

Person: I might try, “Thinking of staying there a while longer?”

Alter ego: Good. That wording doesn’t imply you’re pushing him to change. And you posed it as a question, an actual question, so he’s less likely to feel pressured than if it was a leading question like, “So isn't it time to leave Starbucks and start your career?”

Person: I wouldn’t be that tactless. But to be honest, no matter how tactful, I’d bet that raising those issues—pot, fiancé, career--wouldn’t change his behavior one bit. He’s going to do what he’s going to do.

Alter ego: How sure are you?

Person: Not sure. I need to think about it.

The takeaway

The more of these that are true, the more likely your negative statement will yield a positive result:

  • The person is generally open-minded.
  • The person respects your opinion.
  • The person expressed at least some interest in your input.
  • You couch your input tactfully yet with sufficient directness to disturb the person’s comfortability with the status quo.
  • You phrase your negative statement as a question, which gives the person room to buy in and perhaps generate his or her own solution.
  • Your tone and body language is relaxed rather than intense, which could be perceived as pushy.
  • Sometimes, it's wise to give your input in writing. That gives the person time to reflect instead of respond viscerally, as would be the case if you said it.

So is there something negative you’re thinking about saying? If so, in light of the internal debate and the bullets in this section, what, if anything, do you want to do?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

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