Jill’s Blog

The Magic of Honey Versus Vinegar

I’m working on a training module this week on effective communication, which is something I like to think I know a little bit about.    Most of what I know and teach on this subject comes from my own experience and most often my own pitfalls when I first became a manager over 20 years ago.  Here’s my story. 

As a young new manager back in the early 90’s my communication approach could probably be described as, “ALL CAPS.”   I was striving to be taken seriously in a very competitive work environment and I had the very wrong impression that this meant I had to be a bit of a tiger lady.  I thought you won arguments by talking louder.  HELL, I thought you could actually WIN an argument.     I had not yet learned the value of diplomacy in work and personal conflict.    I was a little baby manager, pretending to be a grown up and I had so much to learn.   But I wasn’t alone in my misguided approach.  Many women leaders will tell you that back in those days, we believed that we needed to be “tough” to be taken seriously.      And we thought being tough meant being direct and unyielding in every situation.   Afraid to give away our power since it was so hard fought to begin with.   We died on the proverbial hill over the smallest things and we argued ourselves to exhaustion to prove a point.   We know now, we were wrong.     

Some of the best career advice I ever received came from a dear friend and co-worker back in 1996.   After a particularly difficult conversation with a male peer who didn’t treat me with much respect, I was lamenting the fact that I couldn’t seem to connect with this person.  Of course, I was convinced it was because I was woman (just call me Norma Rae).    My sweet co-worker said to me, “ya know Jill, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.”    She sounded exactly like Truvy, Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias.    She had my attention.  This was not Steven Covey advice, this was the stuff of a Whitman’s sampler needlepoint.   But she was so correct.   I would like to say that I changed my approach right away, but it took a little longer to sink in.   But eventually, I learned the value of this important nugget of wisdom.   And to this day, when things get a little tense in any business conversation, I hear Dolly (not her real name) in the back of my head, “Be sweet Jill, more flies with honey than vinegar.”    It has never failed me.   I have always had a better result being warm, respectful, open and receptive rather than if I am pushing forward my agenda without regard for others.   

Having the opportunity to teach managers how to lead for over 20 years has allowed me to share the “Dolly wisdom” with countless others.   I have given the honey/vinegar advice thousands of times and it always resonates. When I teach managers, I love to role play better ways to say things to get a better result.    Almost 90% of the learning related to effective leadership and managing the efforts of others comes down to communication.    There is so much value in effective word choice when expressing a message to a team or an individual.     It’s all in the word choice and how you say it. 

Vinegar Phrase                                                                                  Honey Phrase

We have a problem                                                                         Let’s collaborate on a solution

This needs to change                                                                      I want to work with you on a different approach

You need to                                                                                        I’d like for you to focus on…

You get the idea.    The bottom line with all this is that we would all do well to do more teaching than telling to get our point across and to have an impact.     So, the next time you are telling someone what to do, think about teaching them how to do it.  Before saying, “you need to” try saying “let’s try this.”  And if all else fails, just listen to Dolly.    More flies with honey than vinegar.  Works most of the time.  In future blog we can talk about constructive conflict, but for now be sweet, spread joy and enjoy the journey.  


 Now, here’s this week’s addition to the inspireal playlist. Feels appropriate.

Have a great week friends!




Jill Parker