Being a net positive
Why I stopped being "nice"
Relationships have been on my mind; my recent birthday the likely cause. Starting a new year tends to make me more reflective.
Most of us long to be good partners to others. But what does it mean to be good to others in a relationship? In my 20’s I thought it meant being polite, overriding my own needs or feelings to make life easier for the other person. I thought I was building strong relationships. Except that I felt like a phony, I felt awkward. For me being nice meant being saccharine sweet rather than real. As I continued putting my own needs aside, I saw others as selfish. Several friendships fizzled when conflict hit. We were too “nice” to talk about our differences. While trying to be all things for others I lost myself in the process. For me being nice led to superficial relationships, misunderstandings, blow-ups, and sometimes drama.
Becoming a coach showed me being “nice” wasn’t going to create powerful relationships. It wouldn’t support people in making the required shifts to achieve their desires. I realized it wasn’t nice to be “nice” to others. I decided to be a net positive instead, both as a coach and as a person. To do this, I needed to be kind rather than nice — including to myself. Being kind allowed me to be a net positive to others. This shift transformed my relationships, including the one with myself. The mental friction in my head receded, giving me more freedom to think about other subjects.
I recently shared this philosophy with a friend. They loved the idea but were confused. What does this mean? I’ve been taught to be good, to be a nice person. Aren’t we supposed to be good to others?
This post is for them. If you wrestle with what it means to be good to others, it’s also for you. This is especially for anyone who mentors, manages or has any sort of power.
Here’s how I see being nice vs being kind. I’ve always found context useful so here’s how I’d respond in various situations.
Someone made an insensitive remark
Nice: Ignore the comment, pretending it was fine while crumbling on the inside. Tell myself to overlook it, they didn’t mean it. Avoid talking about it even when it happens — over and over. Talk about them behind their back. When angry enough, lash back with an insensitive remark of my own.
Kind: Let an unkind comment slip but when it becomes a pattern, I address it, even when I know they didn’t mean it. Rather than snap back, release the hurt feelings and find a way to let them know how I felt about the interaction. Remember that we grow when we see our actions from a different perspective. See the direct conversation as an opportunity to examine their behavior. They may even be thankful I took the risk to share my experience.
A friend wants to vent but you’ve had a bad day
Nice: A friend calls wanting a sympathetic ear, again. Today was a bad day — there was a tough interaction with a client, the dog is sick and work is piling up. All I want to do is be alone with my thoughts. Despite this, I take the call and listen anyway.
Kind: I know that relationships are two-way streets. I can’t always be there for others, no matter how much I want to be. Ignoring my own needs depletes me with nothing to give anyone, including myself. Let them know I don’t have the space to listen. This gives them a chance to find someone else or change gears and offer to listen to you. Either way, I get the support needed from them or myself. A formerly stressful situation is now a win-win.
You have different work styles
Nice: Accommodate their work style at the expense of your own. Say yes to last-minute meeting requests even though it gets in the way of being effective in my work style. Follow their lead by communicating only in Slack messages even though you prefer to talk.
Kind: I know that we’re our best for others when we work in our predominant style — at least some of the time. I explain how I work best, share our preferences. I see it as the beginning not the end of the conversation. I want my partners to be their best too so I ask about their preferences and needs. I look for a win-win scenario.
You don’t want the same things
Nice: Worry saying no will hurt their feelings or cause a conflict. Say yes — over and over. Grit your teeth and go along. The pressure builds up. Eventually say no, loudly. Spew out all the things frustration over all the times I say yes instead of no. The other person feels like the rug’s been pulled out from underneath them. The relationship suffers.
Kind: Instead of stepping on my own needs I say what’s true for me. I know that saying YES when I mean NO leads to resentment. I say no when I mean no. I might not get what I want but resentment stays at bay knowing I spoke up. Stating preferences also means others don’t have to guess what I want. This relieves pressure on the other person.
A team member is struggling with their work
Nice: Worried they can’t handle the conversation avoid it, put off sharing the reality. Shield them from uncomfortable feelings. Focus on what they’re doing well, mention the problems in an off-hand way. The conversation lingers until it becomes awkward or can’t be ignored anymore. Being “nice” is sometimes why employees can feel like they’re put on a performance plan without notice.*
Kind: We know people can’t improve if they don’t know there’s a problem. When someone is struggling, it’s time to have a direct conversation. Give specific and direct feedback. Then ask lots of questions — especially the hard ones. This starts a conversation that opens the opportunity for growth. The person might not be able to make the necessary changes but you gave them a fair chance.
*Luckily I avoided this situation. Becoming a manager at the same time I became a coach probably helped me. I included it because it’s easy to do.
Being nice can sneak up on us
We all want to get along with others. We know that good relationships ease work and life. Even those who have reached the highest rungs on the career ladder get ensnared in trying to be nice. In trying to balance power dynamics leaders might be nice instead of kind. When you mentor others, manage projects, or lead an area, knowing how to be kind (rather than nice) transforms your relationships. This is turn, transforms the work. Find yourself feeling awkward, having stilted conversations, avoiding subjects or even particular people? Check to see if you have fallen into being nice. If so, find a way to move towards being kind.
One last thing
This conversation may have dredged up some fears about what will happen if you stop being “nice” to others. Being kind doesn’t mean becoming egotistic, demanding, or inflexible. It’s not a license to be mean. It’s not an opportunity to put people on full blast — that’s what we do when we’re fed up with being nice.
Being kind is an opportunity to support yourself and others. It’s a chance to create bonafide connections rather than superficial ones. When we come from a kind place, there’s room for many perspectives and experiences. We offer our opinion or needs and ask for theirs in return. We seek win-win solutions. More often than not, we find them.
What else to read
These seven coaching tools can transform your relationships.
Beware of tight feedback loops.
How Polina Marinova Pompliano uses Hanlon’s Razor in relationships.
Your opinion wanted!
The links in the What else to read section don’t get clicked much. Should I get rid of this section? Put them inline with the main article? I’d love to hear what you want to get from this newsletter. Thanks so much!
Observations and Annotations is a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories. If you enjoy the content, please like and share it.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership consultant and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.