• Joseph Barkley

How Trying to Be Nice Hurts People


Words can mean the opposite of themselves.

When I was growing up, we said something or someone was "bad" when we meant to say it or they were really "good".

"Gnarly", "nasty", and "sick" were counter-intuitively used to give someone or something rave reviews.


My Bostonian friends could offer how "wicked" doesn't mean "evil"; it is a way of elevating a compliment. It's like adding "very" to qualities like strong, creative, and...smaht (sorry).

While some words have graduated into full-on Janus-status or contronyms (for my fellow grammar nerds), a lot of terms and phrases fluctuate meaning based on the person you're talking to, where they're from, and what experiences the words remind them of.

For me, I no longer view "nice" as a nice way to describe me.

For a lot of my life, I've been told I'm a "nice guy". I can talk to most people. I'm adaptable. I'm hospitable. I don't offend or get offended. I rarely lose my temper or raise my voice.

You know...nice.

But what you wouldn't know (and what I'm just starting to learn), is "nice" was a tactic I used when I wanted to look good, avoid conflict, not "get into it", or risk being rejected or debated.

As I've started to see how much my niceness was hiding, I'm also starting to notice a commitment to "nice" in other families, social circles, organizations, education, and churches.

I'm also curious if these ecosystems are aware of the cost of "nice".


  • "Nice" hides conflict, giving it a chance to fester until it's almost untreatable.

  • "Nice" can't produce real intimacy because it's not honest.

  • "Nice" keeps people in jobs they aren't suited for.

  • "Nice" shelves creativity and innovation because those require mess and disruption.

  • "Nice" never shares the last 10% so the deepest issues (and opportunities) are never addressed.

  • "Nice" communicates frailty, so it's "spared" the most powerful conversations.

"Nice" families are ruled by secret agendas.

"Nice" companies fail to adapt and lead.

"Nice" artists paint by numbers.

"Nice" leaders stay stuck.

"Nice" employees aren't trusted with greater responsibilities.


"Nice" is actually quite "mean".


"Nice" is actually quite "mean".

From this point forward, I'm after something else. Forget "nice".

I will be "kind'.

Does that sound the same to you? It's not. Not to me.

  • "Nice" doesn't openly disagree. "Kind" asks questions and expresses opinions.

  • "Nice" flatters. "Kind" specifically encourages.

  • "Nice" is invisible. "Kind" stands out.

  • "Nice" hangs back. "Kind" engages.

  • "Nice" has judgments. "Kind" has curiosity.

  • "Nice" maintains. "Kind" creates.

  • "Nice" pleases people. "Kind" believes in people.

  • "Nice" keeps peace. "Kind" makes peace.

  • "Nice" is reactive. "Kind" is proactive.

  • "Nice" wants comfort. "Kind" wants thriving.

  • "Nice" protects self. "Kind" risks self.

  • "Nice" is about me. "Kind" is about us.

  • "Nice" is greedy. "Kind" is loving.

  • "Nice" is scared. "Kind" is brave.


Forget "nice". I will be "kind'.

"Kind" families have healthy conflict, seek feedback, and know each other.

"Kind" companies direct people to roles of maximum effectiveness and fit (even letting people go to attain it), have robust debates, and let the best ideas win regardless of where they come from.

"Kind" artists bring who they are to the world around them instead of letting the world around them craft who they are.

"Kind" leaders stay hungry, humble, and instigate progress.

"Kind" employees are given more authority.


No more Mr. Nice Guy.

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