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Can’t Decide Whether to Be Honest or Nice? Try Both.

In the Summit’s opening general session, communications expert Sarita Maybin offered ways to ease confrontation in personal, occupational and, of course, legislative situations.

By Mark Wolf  |  August 14, 2023

Communications expert Sarita Maybin wouldn’t have been a happy tablemate with Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt famously quipped, “If you can’t say something nice about anybody, come sit next to me.”

Maybin referenced the line in jest Monday during her address to the opening general session of NCSL’s Legislative Summit. But her session, “What to Say When You Can’t Say Something Nice,” was intended to make sure the Longworths of the world always sit alone.

“When it comes to difficult people and difficult conversations, you can run, but you can’t hide,” said Maybin, whose latest book is “Say What You Mean in a Nice Way.”

Maybin, who jocularly described herself as “the bossy big sister,” offered a number of approaches to ease confrontation in personal, occupational and, of course, legislative situations.

Instead of, “You’re wrong,” try “I have a different understanding” or “I heard something different.”

If you’re tempted to say, “That won’t work,” instead try “What will work is … ”

Rather than, “That’s a dumb idea,” make it, “That idea could be doable if we … ”

People need to decide when to confront and when to just let it go, she said: “Conflict doesn’t go away, it just gets grungier—like dishes left in the sink.”

Thing to consider when making that decision:

  • Is the other person’s behavior having a negative effect—causing problems, missing deadlines?
  • Will the situation begin to affect my attitude if not confronted?
  • What is the consequence of not confronting?

If you decide the situation is worth confrontation, Maybin offered the “AIR” approach to communicate your concerns with tact and respect:

  • Awareness: Some people don’t know they’re part of the problem. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t you just wish somebody would let us know that what we’re doing is a problem?
  • Impact: Make it clear that what the person is doing is getting in the way of getting our work done. Instead of going to them and saying they have a bad attitude, you can say, “I’m concerned that you’re not responding in a timely manner and we’re missing critical funding as a result.”
  • Request: In your heart of hearts what do you really want, short of them never darkening your door again. “Would you be willing to … ” “Would you consider … ” “If we did this … ”

And it’s not just face-to-face confrontations that can benefit from a more delicate touch. She called for a “kindness check” in email exchanges.

“The magic words are still ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please,’ even if you text and tweet with ease,” she said. “It humanizes and softens.”

She urged people to speak in a way that will make people love listening to you and listen in a way that makes people love speaking to you. “Listening is where the power is.”

And when you’re on the receiving end, there is only one rule for receiving criticism, she said: “Ask for more. Don’t explain because it’s just a fancy word for arguing.”

Mark Wolf is a senior editor at NCSL.

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