Say what you mean and mean what you say.” – George Patton

As we settled into what had become a near-nightly performance counseling review, I took a seat that the opposite side of the round table across from one of my subordinates. I listened as she walked me through her assigned duties, explaining in detail why one or another proved too difficult to complete without additional “guidance,” her preferred euphemism for me telling her exactly how to do whatever it was that she was working on at the time. This routine had started to become a grind; as much as I enjoyed spending one-on-one time with my team, I believe deeply in not telling people how to do their jobs. As George Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

But here we were. Like we were almost every night, sitting across the table from one another as I walked her through tasks that someone with her qualifications and years of experience should have already known how to do. As she finished running through her list of “challenges” (because “problem” was not part of the vernacular here), I reviewed the short list scribbled in my green notebook and began to offer some much-needed advice.

“First,” I said, “I think we need to get you some help. You may have more on your plate than one person can manage.” I looked up at her and added, “I think I’m going to move someone from the plans team temporarily until we get some progress here.” I continued, “But… I’m not assigning you tasks that you shouldn’t be able to manage. This should all be well within your capability for someone as senior as you.” She stared down into her notebook and replied, “Noted.”

We continued down her list of challenges, and with each one, I reminded her why those tasks were assigned to her and how she should approach them, essentially doing the opposite of what Patton recommended. Her response throughout never changed: “Noted.”

Finally, I closed my notebook and looked up at her. “I realize that this might be uncomfortable for you but repeating ‘noted’ is about as dismissive as it gets. You’re in here almost every night asking me how to do your job and the best response you’ve got is ‘noted’?”

“Well, sir,” she began, “with all due respect…”

Say What You Mean

A few years earlier, I was riding with my boss – an Army three-star general – to catch a flight and completely failing to ignore a contentious phone call he was having with a particularly prickly colonel. When he terminated the call, he said simply: “I hate the phrase ‘with all due respect.’ You might as well just say ‘f@*k you.’ We all know what you mean when you say it.”

I’d honestly never thought of it in those terms and hearing one of the Army’s most senior leaders spell it out so plainly caused me to take pause. I’d used that phrase over the years. More than once, in fact. I cringed at the thought. Had I been that difficult to deal with? Was I someone who routinely told my boss ‘f@*k you’ in so many words? What else was I saying that loudly transmitted my inner thoughts?

Fast forward a few years, and it occurred to me that I had a problem (not a challenge) on my hands. I’d come into the conversation thinking that we had one type of issue to work through, only realizing that it was, well… more complicated. What we had, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, was “a failure to communicate.”

Mean What You Say

We all have phrases that we use to convey meaning. I tend to lean heavily on pop culture references, but just as often, I communicate my thoughts in blunt, sometimes obscene ways. Despite all outward appearances, I have deep blue-collar roots and, like a bad dye job on a man in a midlife crisis, those roots tend to show at the most inopportune times. But, I can honestly say that there are no hidden meanings behind those words.

With many people, however, that’s not the case. People tend to say what they mean, but our challenge is deciphering the meaning beyond what they say.

1. With all due respect…

Probably the one phrase everyone has heard, and most people clearly understand. Yet people still routinely use it. And, yes, it translates clearly as ‘f@*k you.’

2. Noted.

Used in a one-word response, it translates to, “I hear what you’re saying but I don’t care. You’re not saying what I want to hear.” When someone replies with ‘noted’ whatever you just said was summarily dismissed. And so were you.

3. But…

This is one of my go-to conjunctions. When used in dialog, it can be roughly translated to, “Ignore everything I said before ‘but’ and only listen to what follows.” However, it can also be a form of dismission, as in, “I agree with everything you just said, but…” In other words, they don’t agree with anything you just said.

4. Do you know who I am?

This is less of a question than a statement: “I’m important – more important than you – and you should pay attention to me.”

5. I was just kidding.

This pairs well with, “It was just a joke.” In truth, you weren’t joking or kidding, just running your mouth when you shouldn’t have been. You might as well be honest and simply say, “I’m an a-hole.” Because you are.

6. You should smile more.

Another phrase that pairs well with, “How about a smile?” and “Where’s my hug?” What it signals to others is an absolute lack of emotional intelligence or, worse yet, a weak attempt at flirting. Just don’t. You’re creeping everyone out.

7. I’m a little OCD.

This is a phrase that usually precedes someone telling you not just what to do but how to do it. They want you to do it their way, and only their way. It’s also not OCD, unless it’s an obsessive-compulsive need to control everyone and everything.

8. I don’t mean to sound…

Ah, but you do. You sound exactly like what you’re telling someone that you don’t mean to sound like. This is a close cousin to the OCD comment above.

9. The customer is always right.

Context is everything. In the right context, this means exactly what is intended. Outside that context, this translates to, “Shut up and do what I want.” It has nothing to do with customer service but is an attempt to force someone to break the rules for them. This is often followed by “Get me your manager.”

10. We’re all in this together.

This is the civilian equivalent of the military acronym, BOHICA (bend over, here it comes again). We’re not really all in this together, but you are about to screw us all over by pulling us into your mess.

be Genuine

So, to channel my inner George Patton, always say what you mean, but also be sure you mean what you say. Be genuine and don’t apologize for being the real you. Unless, of course, you’re an a-hole. In that case, you should just plan on doing a lot of apologizing.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.