Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, But Don’t Say It Mean

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There’s a great old saying:

“Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

It may be pithy, but it’s a helpful guide to communication.

Say what you mean:

This part expresses two related ideas in my mind. Be direct and be clear. In any business or even personal communication, don’t beat around the bush. People cannot read your mind. Sure, it’s important to be tactful and socially sensitive, but make sure you directly address the issue at hand. Being roundabout means that the other person may never know what you were getting at – and you may not know that they didn’t know – potentially creating all sorts of misunderstandings.

The corollary to being direct is being clear. Make sure you are specific when communicating expectations or making requests. Also let them know the time frame. It helps manage both parties’ expectations. Being vague can also create problems such as time lost on unnecessary work, unfulfilled expectations and hurt feelings.

Mean what you say:

Watch out for mixed messages. Speaking one way but acting another creates, not to mention mistrust. And be mindful of consistency. If you say one thing and contradict it the next time you speak of the matter, you must at least acknowledge that you have changed your tune. You don’t want to be marked as a hypocrite because you fail to clarify a change in your position.

Similarly, consider that people actually listen to you and take what you say seriously. If you’re not sure you are going to follow through on a promise or plan, best to let people know from the start that it’s just a possibility. Again, managing expectations helps avoid misunderstandings, disappointments and hard feelings.

Don’t say it mean:

You can be clear, direct and consistent without creating bad feelings. In general, try to use positive, rather than negative, language. Frame a request as a “do” rather than a “don’t.” Even delivering criticism can be done in a polite, respectful way. Front load critiques with an acknowledgement of something positive. Stay away from criticizing the person and focus on the behavior you’d like changed. Once you’ve identified the issue at hand, focus your attention on the solution rather than the problem. Whenever possible, frame your comments in the “we” rather than the “you” to create more of a team spirit.

Perhaps you have other interpretations of “say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.” Please feel free to share them with me by writing to

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