“To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves; let us be above such transparent egotism. If you can’t say good and encouraging things, say nothing. Nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.”
 – Will Durant, born 5 November 1885.

My friend Wayne posts daily nuggets of wisdom on Facebook from well-known and obscure figures. His posts always speak to me, evidenced by my clicking the LOVE button every time. But this one resonated more than the usual.

Perhaps because I am working so much with organisational leaders in coaching them to become exceptional leaders, as well as facilitating leadership teams in my Nourish to Flourish program, this quote emphasised and reminded me that sometimes, many times even, the best option is to say or do … nothing. The thousands of half-written Facebook comments that I have erased mid-sentence, the LinkedIn comments that didn’t get written, the telephone calls I didn’t make, or the conversations I didn’t have, flooded through my memory as choices I had made to say nothing. The simple acts notwithstanding, the decision process I went through for each involved a range of emotions – anger at what the other person had said or done, guilt at my lack of courage in copping out and not saying anything, frustration at seeing the person digging themselves deeper in their hole, betrayal – what type of friend/leader/boss/family member was I to say nothing? But then, peace. For I realised that saying nothing was doing SOMETHING, an active step, a choice that I made consciously. I could so easily have lashed out, dashed off a response, hit out in anger. Instead I looked at the options, and decide that saying nothing was the best.

I also realised that choosing to say nothing in the moment does not mean that I never say anything – there is time enough to say something, but later, at another time, if I so choose. One of my favourite coaching clients (don’t worry – all my coaching clients are my favourites) shared with me a few weeks ago, some 3 years after our coaching, that he decided NOT to “shoot off an email” to someone who had upset him, remembering our coaching sessions. He had chosen to say and do nothing, in that moment. And he was so happy that he had taken that approach as subsequent events proved him right.

Reflect on Will Durant’s quote in our role as leaders – when we speak ill of others, is it a judgement, in relation to some standard about ourselves that we hold to be right? But is it right? What makes it right? Does our statement come from ego or from love? If it comes from ego, then it is likely to hurt the other. If it is from love, then we can find some way to be encouraging, even in the face of delivering negative feedback. Why? Because our intention is to help the other, not to prove that we are right.

So the next time you are faced with a situation where you are tempted to speak ill of others:

  1. STOP!
  2. Notice your emotions, without judgement. If you are angry, you are angry. That is all.
  3. Breathe and get calm.
  4. Set your intentions – what do you want to accomplish by your response?
  5. Consider your options for responding, remembering that saying and doing nothing is always an option.
  6. Decide, based on love, not your ego-need to be right.

Saying nothing is sometimes very clever, and is never doing nothing. It is an active choice. And sometimes it is the very best choice you can make.

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