“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
If you are alive, someone has probably said this to you, and if you have kids or have worked with kids, it is probable that you have said this to one or more of them. As a parent of four kids, I have used this phrase often.
The intention, of course, is good. Children are not the world’s best communicators. They are defensive, rude, and downright mean sometimes. So, teaching them to say nothing if they cannot be nice is, we think, an improvement. Besides, we want our children to be kind human beings.
But, as an adult, saying nothing is a problem.
Have you noticed how blunt kids are? One of their first words is “no.” When they don’t get their way, they retaliate with tantrums. They do not hide their anger or frustration. Everyone in hearing distance knows where they stand.
Adults are also good at tantrums. The difference, however, is that adults get mad in silence. Consider the following behaviors:
- The meeting after the meeting. (Silence by not discussing directly with the opposition.)
- Gossiping. (Silence by not going to the source.)
- Stonewalling. (Not saying anything.)
- Agreeing even though you don’t. (Silence by “keeping the peace.”)
- Passive aggressiveness. (Silence by punishment.)
- Sabotage. (Silence through behaviors.)
As adults, we have learned to say nothing if we can’t anything nice. But saying nothing does not solve the problem; in fact, it usually escalates the problem.
Silence is destructive.
Biologically speaking, when we are angry, upset, and/or frustrated, we activate our fight, flight, or freeze response. This response happens in the limbic system of the brain which is home to our emotions. Stated another way, when we are in this mode, we are not thinking logically or rationally. We know this is true, so instead of yelling or defending ourselves, we get quiet. Our silence ruminates in our limbic system and will eventually come out in destructive ways.
Examples of destructive behaviors:
- Yelling at your kids when you get home.
- Kicking your dog.
- Depression and/or anxiety.
- Office gossip.
- Unconscious behaviors, like taking longer breaks or not refilling the coffee maker.
If you can’t say anything nice, say something neutral.
When we are angry, upset, and/or frustrated, we need time to cool off. The recommended cooling off time is at least 20 minutes. As long as you avoid thinking about the problem or your anger, you help to reset your brain to think about the situation logically instead of emotionally. Essentially, this reset helps you depersonalize the problem.
So, instead of saying nothing, say something to give you time to think. Then, as a courtesy, state a deadline when you can revisit the issue. Here are some examples:
- “I need some time to think about this. Can we circle back on Friday?”
- “I don’t think we are on the same page. Let’s take a break and revisit the issue this afternoon.”
- “Thank you for the information. Please give me some time to consider what you said. Can we meet back up tomorrow at lunch?”
Asking for time to sort out your thoughts is preferable to the alternatives. Be mindful of your emotions by giving yourself time to reset. And because others are not mind readers, politely let them know you need a break.