“If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

This was my mother’s mantra, and probably your mother’s too. Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of this advice… probably right about the time Twitter started trending and we could be Facebook friends instead of just real friends.

As recent communication research points out, there is still life in that age old wisdom. We rarely get anyone to change their mind by having an argument. In fact, arguing causes each side to defend their positions, and the act of defending actually increases commitment to the ideology being defended.

I know, it’s fun to say not-so-nice things and enjoyable to exercise our mental muscles creating pithy come-backs. Especially if we get rewarded for our snarkiness with the accolades of others ( I am looking at you, Facebook), we have a self-perpetuating reinforcement loop.

So, what to do if we can’t say anything nice? Should we just shut up forever?

Actually, there is a path that helps improve communication outcomes and it does not involve emails in ALL CAPS. Asking questions is the key – ones that improve our understanding, and perhaps provide a platform for educating our audiences, if needed.

Your best friends on this journey are open-ended questions such as:

  • Tell me more about…
  • Can you explain this to me?
  • I need to know more, can you help?
  • Why do you…

Next time you think you can’t say anything nice, it’s time to start asking questions and to improve your understanding. Guaranteed, this will have unexpectedly interesting and perhaps even pleasant consequences. Plus – it might make your mother really happy!

p.s. What’s your favorite question to ask?