The Soft Answer

Verbal T'ai Chi for sociable self-defense

Tidewater Women

Flip sides: verbal attack or Soft Answer?

In the thoughtful article
No More Fake Quoting Maya Angelou! on her Mom, the Intern blog, Jenna Foote explains how an inspiring quote from Maya Angelou has been turned into a verbal attack, of sorts.

Foote's piece brings up the valuable point that depending on how you tweak a statement, motivated by the all-important intention behind it, something which can be—and perhaps is even designed to be—a supportive statement of encouragement can be turned into a snooty, high-and-mighty sounding dressing down.

Let's look at both sides of this particular coin. First, the positive, supportive line Angelou perhaps invoked in different versions at different times:

One version from Angelou has her talking about herself and her own personal development, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." Another version out there is, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

In the
Oprah's LIFECLASS video The Powerful Lesson Maya Angelou Taught Oprah, Oprah Winfrey discusses in depth the first time she heard Angelou say this to her, and then shares how it affected her and how she's invoked it through the years. In this case, Oprah was telling Angelou about the mistakes Oprah had made back in her twenties. Winfrey says Angelou's reply was, "That was when you were twenty. And now, you're in your thirties. When you know better, you do better."

The saying has become quite popular, and rightly so. On the
E! online website, it's number one in their list of Maya Angelou's 15 Best Quotes reagrding Love, Forgiveness, Humility and Compassion. Sherry Kulakowski, in her Tidewater Women article Know Better, Do Better, shares just how positive this statement can be. Dana Papke wrote about the quote and how it applies to HR departments in "How this Amazing Maya Angelou Quote Applies to HR" on the TPO, Inc website.

So it's a nice thing to say, right?

The problem is, the saying, "When you know better, you do better," is now being turned around by some people, so that it ends up being critical, rather than caring. This is the focus of Foote's blog piece.

How? Foote gives us some great examples, so please do read her article. But I'll try my hand at one here:

A: I put all my appointments into my phone, so I'm never late for anything anymore.
B: That's great. I still love using my old appointment book, even though I sometimes forget to look at it in time."
A: "Well, when you know better, you do better." (sometimes instead: "When you know better, you'll do better.")

See the twist?

The complete thought, if we include the underlying attitude, is: "Unlike me, you just don't know any better. When you know better, like I do, you'll come to the same conclusions I have, and you'll do the things I do, so you'll do better."

This is how a potential Soft Answer response can be manipulated into just the opposite.

Here are two statement to compare:
1)"I used to feel that way as well, but then I matured in my thinking." (implies you are more mature and know better; you're criticizing the other person and putting them below you)
as opposed to:
2) "I used to feel that way as well, and then I started to wonder whether…" (connects you with the other person and invites them to explore another possibility and perspective together. An invitation, rather than a criticism.)

Keep an eye and an ear out for these near misses!