What it means to be nice

I’ve been frustrated at the common understanding of what it means to be nice for awhile. I find that groups that talk the most about being kind, compassionate, and the whole mental health schtick are some of the places I feel the least comfortable.

DHH is someone with whom I often disagree, but the opening paragraph to Be less precious is spot on:

The essence of the book Radical Candor is the concept of ruinous empathy. That by trying your best to couch employee performance feedback in overly gentle language, you end up confusing the message, and cheating the recipient out of the clarity they desperately need to improve — or prepare for what happens if they don’t.

I see this time and again. Leaders simply don’t have it in them to give open and honest feedback. People flounder, don’t improve and then when the next round of layoffs comes along, they’re gone. Being nice, or perhaps more precisely, the fear of a direct conversation, ends up becoming the cause of someone not improving and thus being passed up for promotions or ultimately fired.

Real compassion isn’t the sweet and sappy thing of being nice”. Nor is real compassion a fig leaf to hide rudeness behind. Intention is what differentiates them.

Seth Godin tackles this topic in much more depth and nuance than DHH does, and if it’s something that interests you, his podcast about difficult conversations is helpful.

I went and listened to a summary of Radical Candor, the book referenced by DHH, and it’s a fascinating concept. There are three roles you can play when giving feedback:

  1. Obnoxious Aggression is self explanatory enough.
  2. Radical Candor is expressing open feedback and criticism with the difference that you genuinely care about the person you’re talking to.
  3. Manipulative Insincerity is being nice” and pleasant but withholding valuable feedback.

What’s not talked about is that many people and organizations simply don’t want feedback and have no mechanisms in place to use solid feedback. Then there’s no point in offering radical candor.

The real life application of this is rather tricky. It’s a long process of learning how to communicate, setting boundaries, being clear about expectations, yet also carefully guarding against the creeping infantilism that’s become so prevalent on social media and the tech industry.

The relationship between compassion, communication, competence, and managing relationships is hard. But that’s also much of what defines us as people.