Sarita Maybin is an internationally recognized communication expert who teaches us how to navigate the most difficult of conversations. The well-known speaker and Bestselling Author, Les Brown, perhaps put it best when he said “Sarita Maybin’s skillful combination of positive examples and practical phrases will transform your communication experience”.
Sarita literally wrote the book on how to answer the perpetually perplexing question: If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What DO You Say? She continues the conversation in her new 2020 book, Say What You Mean in a Nice Way.
In her 20+ years as an international speaker Sarita has spoken for TEDx and worldwide in more than 10 countries. She has received numerous awards including: International Who’s Who of Professional Women, Who’s Who in the Southwest, Toastmasters Winner, and was voted a Top 5 Communication Speaker. Sarita is a former Chapter President of the National Speakers Assn and a former university dean of students. She has been featured in the media including by Fox, ABC and Forbes.
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Sarita Maybin: If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What DO You Say? Virtually Speaking Ep. 49
Joining us is Sarita Maybin, an internationally recognized communication expert who teaches us how to navigate the most difficult of conversations. The well-known speaker and bestselling author, Les Brown perhaps put it best when he said, “Sarita Maybin’s skillful combination of positive examples and practical phrases will transform your communication experience.” In her many years as an international speaker, she has spoken for TEDx and worldwide in more than ten countries, a multiple award-winner including International Who’s Who of Professional Women, Who’s Who in the Southwest, a Toastmasters Champion, and was voted a Top 5 Communication Speaker. She is a former Chapter President of the National Speakers Association and a former university Dean of Students. She wrote the book on how to answer the perpetually perplexing question If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say? She continues the conversation in her book, Say What You Mean in a Nice Way. She has been featured in the media including FOX, ABC and Forbes. Please join me now with Sarita Maybin.
Sarita Maybin, thank you for joining me here on the show. How are you?
I’m great, Chris. Thank you for having me.
It’s my pleasure. It has been a long time since I’ve seen you. I’ve known you for a long time. I love telling people about you because you have this niche and area that I feel like you own, which is summarized by the titles of your books in a lot of ways, and some familiar phrases that a lot of people are used to, “If you’re not going to say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” You realized and teach people that you have to say something.
It amazes me that no matter where I go, I’ve even spoken as far away as Iceland and the Arctic Circle, and they can complete the phrase, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” It seems to be some universal wisdom, which I’m out to debunk.
Your first book is If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say?: Practical Solutions for Working Together Better. Your newest book, when did that come out?
That was my pandemic project. I wrote it during the lockdown and it came out in October 2020.
That one is called Say What You Mean in a Nice Way: Working Together Better in High-Tech Times. You’re tackling the new world that we live in with all the new technologies that we’re also navigating through. What’s your favorite way to communicate if you can’t be in person? Is it Zoom, the phone, text or email? What’s the best?
I’ve become an email person because it’s efficient and fast. One of the things I’ve noticed is I invoked this rule of three as I call it, which is if I go back and forth three times and they need clarification, they are unsure or they have questions, then I go ahead and have the phone call. I feel like there are times when we get that signal that they’re not getting it, we need to go beyond the scope of the email. That’s when I like talking on the phone when I need to brainstorm and hash it out.
I love this topic because it is the center of my universe. Communication is how to engage with people, give people what they need, and understand where people are coming from. It’s a lot more than just being nice is what you focused on.
There’s a quote. I’ll attribute that to Tony Robbins who says, “The quality of our communication is the quality of our life.” My little secret agenda, whenever I speak to audiences, is to slip in some stuff that we can use in life outside of work because it’s not just about the workplace. It’s some of the stuff we can take home.
Let’s go back. I like to trace the steps sometimes of people in how they became one of the best in the world at what they do and what led them to this. I know you have been a past President of the NSA in San Diego. I know that you were a former Dean of Students who held leadership positions at some state universities. Is that where it all started professionally for you when you were the Dean of Students?
I’m trying to think how far do I want to rewind. I joke about this in my presentations that it all started of me being the bossy big sister, oldest of four, when my two younger sisters and brother would always say, “You’re not the boss of me,” because I try to boss them around. One of the big epiphanies is when I went off to college as a young grad student, trying to supervise people in the university who were more senior and seasoned than I was. I always felt like the challenge was, “How do you get cooperation and get people to buy in, even when you’re not officially their boss?” Most of the people in the audiences that I speak to are probably finding that they have to get cooperation and they’re not necessarily the boss. I feel like that quest began even way earlier than the university career.
How did you get into that position? What was your educational background as far as leading you into that?
You’re prompting me to go again down some dark paths long ago. I was all set to be a Journalism major when I was in high school. I was in an American high school in Germany. My dad was in the military. I spent half my childhood overseas. I remember getting ready to come back to the States to go to college and I was going to be a Journalism major. I was a co-editor of the high school newspaper. I remember somebody got the bright idea that every self-respecting newspaper has to have an advice columnist. Do you remember Dear Abby and Dear Annie from the old school? Somehow I ended up as the advice columnist and spent hours studying what makes people tick.
By the time I got to college, I was a Psychology major. I got my degree in Psychology as an undergrad and then was working on campus as a campus leader and discovered, “They pay people to work on campuses? How do you get to do that?” They said, “You go get your Master’s Degree in College Administration,” which I did. That’s what led to my higher ed career. I ended up working at four state universities and ultimately, as a Dean of Students. I do feel like again it was that quest to figure out, “What makes people tick? How do you get into people’s heads? How do you gain cooperation?” I had a lot of opportunities as a supervisor over the years before I became a speaker. Where it all started is from a Dear Abby type column from my high school paper.'The quality of our communication is the quality of our life.' – Tony Robbins Click To Tweet
When you decided to write If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say? you had been talking about this topic for a while. You realize this was something that you were asked to speak about a lot and something you loved talking about. What was the background on how that book got put together?
What was interesting to me is I start most presentations even now by asking the audience to complete the phrase, “If you can’t say something nice,” and people will say, “Don’t say anything at all.” Everybody knows that but what would happen is almost every time I spoke, someone would come up to me afterward and say, “Sarita, if you can’t say something nice, what do you say?” Word-for-word, I was getting that question, “If you can’t say something nice, what do you say?” I used to joke about, “Someday, I’m going to write a book with that title.” I even had a brief time where I had a keynote by that title. I killed the keynote temporarily and decided to put my energy into writing the book. It came directly from the question I kept getting asked by people in my audiences.
This is a problem that a lot of people have. Nice and not-so-nice people all have this problem. The not-so-nice people probably solve it the wrong way. The nice people probably don’t get anything done by the way they handle it. Is that right?
Yes, that’s right because people seem to think that there are only two options. People think there’s ugly in saying something, making demands, being obnoxious or being quiet and not saying anything at all. My contention is that there’s a middle ground where we can say what we mean in a nice way. The goal is to find that middle ground.
Walk us through the process that our minds should be to figure out, “What is it that we need to say here?” For me, I always have this phrase in my head, “Kill them with kindness.” Don’t prejudge anybody where they’re coming from. People could be having a bad day. People could always be a certain way when they write emails when it’s not reflective of who they are in person. Understand what they’re asking as best as you can and try and deliver that to them. Is that the way to do it?
Ironically, I still go back to what I call my bossy big sister ways. I always tell people the bossy big sister way is the aggressive and obnoxious way, which is the finger-pointing, “You should do.” Any time we say, “You should do better,” people get their defenses up. Sometimes people say, “I’m not going to say anything.” The middle ground is when we take responsibility and say, “I need this. I need your help. I appreciate you letting me know if there’s going to be a problem.” It’s about the I and the we, which I hate to say it but it goes all the way back to good old Assertiveness 101 back in the dark ages. I feel like that’s where the middle ground lives.
It’s not saying, “You should” and putting them on the defensive right off the bat.
Most of us don’t want to be told what we should do and what we need to do better. We do put our defenses up when we get told, “You better do this.”
Are things changing also now? I know that the pandemic changed everything. The way we communicate became a lot more distant and electronic. Before the pandemic started, were things already shifting into a new way of hiding behind the keyboard or text rather than actually talking in person in a conversation, either on Zoom or on the phone?
Totally. It was in 2012 that one of my clients asked me, “Can you include in your communication presentation something about the fact that we’re all online?” That’s what prompted me to start doing research about online communication and how people have gotten a little cowardly in hiding behind their computers and lobbing crazy comments because they feel like they can. It has been way before the pandemic that people were hiding behind email and online communication.
What is the solution? What is the guideline here for people who work in regular jobs who aren’t necessarily leaders, and when they’re dealing with their peers and superiors? How do leaders handle this situation? Personally, for my take on all of this, I have a much better success rate of getting the client what they want and understanding where they’re coming from if I have a phone call or a conversation with them.
One of the times that I always recommend that you pick up the phone is when there are some problems to be solved or some discussion to happen. That’s not something that can be easily done via email. What I found in a lot of the companies I’ve spoken at and people I’ve talked to who are working in the trenches is that it’s about people’s preferences. One of my colleagues works for a high-tech company. She says, in their employee profile, they have to rank order their preference. For her, for example, the internal communication messaging system is her number one. Email is her number two, text is her number three, and a phone call is her number four. It’s the old rule of not doing unto people as you want them to do unto you, but doing unto people as they want to be done unto. Even with our clients and people we don’t work with on a daily basis, we can always say, “What’s your preference?” They’re more likely to be positive when you respond in the way they want us to communicate with them.
Is it an issue when some people are socially inept, socially awkward or maybe just not the nicest person to deal with? Can the leaders mitigate that situation? I remember a great story about Nolan Bushnell who created and started Atari. He had Steve Jobs working for him. Steve was a hothead and had some things to say that were very controversial. He would call people out on things they were doing. He said, “Steve, you can work the night shift.” There was no night shift but he created a night shift for Steve because he was so great. He didn’t want to fire and lose him, but he needed to separate him from everybody else. Are there ways that people have been working towards doing that thing with difficult people?
In other words, they don’t want him to have to contact anybody or be in touch with anybody. It is hard for people who are not necessarily outgoing people. I found that people who are not necessarily outgoing thrive even better with email because they don’t have to be face-to-face. I love telling the story. I call it the angry email story. It is the opening story in my new book. It’s about a colleague of mine who wrote an email cursing out her boss. Thankfully, she did not send the email. She showed it to me before she deleted it. I talked about how I was going to put the email on my slides in my presentation, but then I realized that this woman would end up in the audience one day and it would be all over.
What I do is share the words that she uses. In her first email, the one she deleted, she used words like toxic, condescending, overbearing, but then she composed the same email with more positive words but still got the point across. Things like, “We would appreciate. We hope you understand.” The words were shifted and she was able to share the same message. I talk a lot about in our emails, “Are we putting positive words?’ I call them can-do words, “I can absolutely do that. I can definitely do that. I would be happy to support you.” Those are the positive words that we can use in our emails.
Even if you’re not the most personable person, you can use those emails to connect and be more approachable. When we’re communicating with email, instead of saying, “Get that to me by Friday,” we can say, “Please get that to me by Friday. Thank you so much for being prompt.” I feel like the old other wisdom from my mother, the “Please” and “Thank you,” prevails as we are virtual but it also works as we go back to being in-person. “Please” and “Thank you” still work.There is a middle ground to communication where we can say what we mean in a nice way. Click To Tweet
I use more exclamation points than I probably should in my emails as well because I want to convey the excitement or enthusiasm I have for what I’m doing for them.
Don’t get me on that tangent because I can do a whole-hour commentary on exclamation points. One of the things I share in my presentations is that I do three types of checks before I send my email. The first check is spellcheck. The second check is the kindness check, as a friend of mine calls it, which is looking if there “Please” or “Thank you” somewhere? She called it the kindness check or the care check. Number three is the punctuation check because like you, I want to use exclamation marks behind every sentence. I’ve had to wean myself of that. That was the bane of my editor’s existence in this most recent book. She said, “Really? I’m not even going to edit the exclamation marks anymore. I’m going to tell you after every chapter, look and see how many you have and take some of them out.”
Speaking of that new book, Say What You Mean in a Nice Way, there’s a play on words there like Virtually Speaking, there’s a play on words here. You want to be mean. That’s the premise of the title, “You want to be mean right now,
but you’ve got to say it in a nice way.” Tell us what’s going on there.
I love the fact that you picked up the play on words, the juxtaposition of the mean and nice. I always think that we don’t necessarily have to be mean but we might want to be truthful. It’s helpful to be honest and authentic. When I think of say what you mean, I think of truth and honesty. We get all benefited from having more truth-tellers because a lot of people say what we want to hear, but that’s not very useful, especially if you ask for someone’s feedback and they sugarcoat it. What good is that? We do want to be truthful, authentic and honest but we don’t have to crush the other person in the process. We can say it in a way that’s more about, “I’m noticing, I’m observing, I’m wondering if, maybe we could,” versus, “You need to do this. You better do that. You should stop doing that.”
What’s your favorite part of the new book? Is there a favorite chapter or story that you could share with us?
I have a feeling you’ve probably already perused my book, haven’t you, Chris? Because you know I have some favorite things in there. One of the things that I love to share and I have a clip on my Facebook business page with my little rap. I have to include that here because this is a rap that I used to wrap up my presentation on High-Touch Relationships in High-Tech Times. I’ll share it here with your readers because this sums up everything that I have to say about online communication. Here’s my brief rap, “LOL, TMI, OMG. I can’t understand what you’re saying to me. The magic words are still thank you and please, even if you text or tweet with ease. Bold fonts, all caps are email attitude, and texting while we’re talking is just rude. Ditch the email. Catch a clue. Pick up the phone if something is bothering you. If you can’t say something nice, what do you say? Whatever it is, don’t post it on Facebook today.” That’s my two cents worth on online communication. It is in my book. To answer your question, it’s one of the favorite parts of my section in the book on High-Touch, High-Tech.
I have another question that I’m eager to know. You’ve been talking about this topic for a long time. You’ve made this your area of expertise so people can think of you when they need better communication and deal with difficult people. I’ve had people talk to me about that for years. Can you give me a story where somebody has had success? They’ve had a difficult person and they fixed it? They fixed that person or the way that person was dealing with them, or they were difficult and now they’re not anymore. Can you tell me any good news on that?
I don’t get asked that question a lot. I’m pondering it and the first story that popped in my mind was a story that almost had me in tears right before I went onto the stage. Some clients thankfully bring me back every couple of years. It’s always fun when I have a repeat client. It was a client at a housing management company. They invited me back for the second time. It was only a year later, which in our world, they used to wait a few years before they bring you back. They had about 400 or 500 employees. They were all gathering and ready to introduce me when this man ran up to me. He said, “I want to tell you, I was about to get divorced right before you spoke last year. I tried something that you mentioned and my wife and I are still together.” I was like, “What?”
I don’t propose to be any marriage counselor kind of person. I always focus on the workplace with a few little nuggets to take home. What he said was exactly what we’ve been talking about. He said he was speaking to his wife like, “You better. You need to. You should,” which made her feel like she was being put down and treated like a child. He said, “I switched it and started saying, ‘I need your help. I would appreciate it. Could you possibly?’ versus, ‘You better. You need to.'” In my many years as a speaker, that’s probably the highest praise that I ever received. If you think something so small and little like that, it won’t make a difference, but it was that little shift he made. A year later, they were good.
You’ve got to be on guard and watching what you say in today’s world more than ever anywhere, especially online but also at home and work. You can’t turn that off. You’ve got to filter. You’re somebody who helps us understand that. I have had clients who booked you more than once. It’s great because they want to remind people that communication can be easy if we think about who we’re talking to, how they’re perceiving what we’re saying, and how we can edit ourselves a little bit, be it electronically or in person.
There is an acronym in my book that I would like to mention because this was a time when I was on the receiving end of positive communication. I shared in the book an acronym called CARE, which is ironic because, during this pandemic, there have been all kinds of programs with the word CARE in them. I was like, “My story has nothing to do with any of that.” My incident happened in 2018. My husband and I were returning from back East and we were stuck in the airport in Dallas. As the person who talks about positive communication, I try not to have a meltdown or a hissy fit in the middle of the airport. I try to walk my talk.
When I was in this situation, our flight was completely canceled. It wasn’t the worst travel ordeal. I could spend a whole day talking about travel ordeals but it was the best display I had ever seen on the part of the person. Trisha and Hannah are the two women’s names and I always shout out their names when I can. They were airline ticket agents. I was so inspired after their interaction. I went back and wrote a blog about it, and put it on my website. Fast forward, 3 or 4 years later, it’s now a story in my book. The acronym that they prompted me to come up with was CARE. The C stood for collaborative. Instead of doing things to us, it was, “Let’s see if we can get you another flight. Let’s see if we can get you rescheduled. Let’s see if we can get you back home to San Diego.” It was a lot of we and let’s versus, “You need to sit over there and wait until we get this resolved.” Sometimes, you’re treated poorly. I was struck by the collaborativeness.
The second was A, which I thought was cool because they were attentive. They would come back and give us updates, “Here’s what’s going on. We have some options. We’ll get back to you.” They didn’t forget about us. The R was Results. They got us home. All the nice communication in the world without results is pointless. The E was Empathy, “I know it has been a long day. I know this is frustrating.” Being able to acknowledge that and much like in your interview with Chris and Derek, the master negotiators. I heard in their interview that they were talking about, “People want to be heard.” I personally think that all the negativity that we see both at work and at home is people not feeling heard. That E in CARE was powerful. Consultative, Attentive, Results and Empathy is a powerful combination. My hats off to those ladies in the airport at the ticket booth that day.
Is there anything you can do to get the people you’re working with at the ticket counters with all the other cancellations that you’re going through? I know you fly a lot. All the speakers do. Was there anything you took from that, that you could do from your side of things to get them to react that way as those two ladies did?
My favorite question to ask anytime I’m in a situation like that is along the lines of that first letter, the C, the consultative approach. I probably had been doing this even before I encountered these two top ticket agents. My question is always, “How can we resolve this?” I have a top ten positive communication phrases I talk about all the time. One of the phrases, the phrase number two is, “How can we resolve this?” I found that when things had gone awry, I’ve said to someone like a ticket agent, “I need to get to this city. I have a presentation tomorrow. The flight has been canceled. How can we resolve this?” A lot of times, they’re shocked because they’re used to being yelled at and cursed out. When you say, “How can we resolve this?” I always see the stunned look on their faces.
It’s not like, “How can we resolve this?” It’s more like, “How can we resolve this?”
It’s funny you said that because I love talking about the evil twin. We all have the evil twin who lives over here on the sidelines. The evil twin sometimes is doing the ugly nonverbals. The evil twin is sometimes saying, “How can we resolve this?” but then I have to check myself, “How can we resolve this?” Our nonverbal sometimes give us away and get us in trouble.
You teased us. Give us a couple more of the top ten phrases that are go-to phrases that we should keep in mind. Not to put you on the spot but I’m sure you have them memorized.
Phrase number eight is my favorite. I’ll talk about phrase number eight which is, “Help me understand.” I joke about how I borrowed that phrase from my favorite TV series, Detective Columbo, the wrinkled, raincoat-wearing detective, and how he would say, “I’m confused. I thought we agreed. Help me understand.” I feel like so many times, things go awry. Things don’t work out as we had hoped and we have to say, “Help me understand what happened.” Better yet, you’re in a push-pull situation. You’re maybe in a staff meeting and somebody is shooting down your ideas, “That won’t work. That’s not going to happen.” We have to say, “Help me understand what your concerns are. Help me understand what went wrong last time so we don’t make the same mistake this time.” I talk a lot about that.
To find out the other eight, you’re going to have to read the book.
They’re in the book. I might jump in and put in a little commercial message because I have a PDF with 50 phrases that I offer to those people who want to text Sarita Talk to a five-digit code, 22828. Put Sarita Talk in the message and send it to 22828. You’ll automatically get a PDF with 50 phrases.
You have to let me know how many people do that because that’s the first time somebody has ever done that.We want to be truthful, authentic and honest but we don't have to crush the other person in the process. Click To Tweet
I usually offer that at my keynotes. People always say, “Do you got any more phrases? What else you do you got?”
You’re full of great information and ideas, a lot of research, and years of seeing the stuff work, and you’ve written two awesome books on it. You are awesome. This is important because I feel like the world is a little more tense than it has been. Even though we’re coming out of this thing, there’s still a lot of tension in the air. A lot of people are still doing two people’s jobs. A lot of people are overworked and trying to figure out how to do this job that they have. We all have to be patient and empathetic. This is an important message. I’m happy you were on now. I’ve been looking forward to it. Thank you so much, Sarita, for coming on. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and work with you. This was really fun.
Thank you so much for having me, Chris. I appreciate it.
I will talk to you soon. Have a good rest of your year.