When to Use Honey and When to Use Vinegar

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“Which is right? Being clear and direct, or sugar-coating everything?”


If I had a dollar for every time a client asked this question – or some version of it – I could have retired by now. (Okay, maybe not, but I’d be a lot closer!)


It’s a common expression of frustration when people get feedback that they’re “too blunt” or need to be “more diplomatic.”


The flip side of the coin is when I hear, “I know, I’m too nice. People don’t take me seriously and I get ignored. I can’t stand it!”


The main problem in both of these situations is the “Either/Or” mentality regarding communication and influence: “EITHER I’m clear OR I’m nice.”


This is an artificial choice; a false binary that frames conversation as black and white rather than infinite shades of gray that shift (or at least need to shift) based on other contextual factors.


There’s an expression that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but (a) we’re talking to other people, not catching flies, and (b) if I have honey and vinegar, there are far more productive things I’d rather do with them than catch flies.


For starters, I’d make salad dressing. (Remember, I love to cook because I like to eat even more than I like to talk!)


Salad dressing is all about the balance between acid and oil, with salt and sweetness to taste. Traditionally, the ratio is 2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, although I typically like it more balanced. Then the spoonful of honey, maybe a little dijon mustard, and some salt and pepper to finish it off.


But this can be modified depending on what it’s being paired with, and who will be eating it. For example, my husband likes his dressings a lot sweeter, whereas my mother prefers much less oil in the mix. Alternatively, if the salad has bitter flavors like radicchio and endive I’ll add a little extra honey to the dressing; if it has chopped apples or dates, I’ll add a little extra vinegar to balance it out.


It’s the same with diplomacy: your message needs to be “dressed” with the right balance of “acid” and “sweetness:” The underlying point needs to be clear and unambiguous, but the delivery needs to ensure the person you’re serving it to doesn’t find the taste so off-putting that they send it back to the kitchen and leave the restaurant.


This is as true in family discussions as in business conversations… so imagine how important (and challenging) it must be if you’re running a family business!


That’s exactly what we explored this week on the Speaking to Influence podcast with David Reale, CEO of Phoenix Tube Co. David started working for his dad in the family business of steel tube manufacturing (ever ride a bus or subway and hold on to the bar for balance? That’s his!) when he was 14 years old. Decades later, he and his brother now run the show.



One unique thing about having risen through the ranks in the same company for his entire career: he’s literally done every job at the company at one time or another. This provides a uniquely powerful perspective as a leader, and David shared how it influences his style-shifting decisions in order to effectively translate messages to different stakeholder groups.


In our conversation, he shared lessons in business and leadership he learned from his father (who was comparatively very heavy-handed with the vinegar), and how he decides when to follow in his father’s footsteps or go a different direction, adding more honey to some interactions than others, and which discussions don’t ever need to be sugar coated, period.


Listen to the full conversation here and watch it on YouTube here .

Good news: I’ve finally gotten permission from LinkedIn to run LinkedIn Live events! Stay tuned for links to join my first live broadcast next week on Thursday 1/20 at 3pm ET with Kari Schneider, high-performance coach to executives and professional athletes alike. She’ll share all the inside secrets to keeping your energy up and your focus sharp when you’re in back-to-back video conferences all day. Trust me, you won’t want to miss this!

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