We've all heard of someone encountering a proud new mother with an ugly infant and blurting out an extemporaneous evasion such as "Now there's a baby!" or "What a beautiful blanket!"
Unfortunately, the same conflict between honesty and consideration for others' feelings arises quite often at the office.
Business texts usually deal only with one form of this problem: how a manager should react to a piece of work that he or she considers unsatisfactory. And the consensus (hardly novel) is that honesty, as tactful as possible, is the best policy.
It's both cruel and inefficient for supervisors to delay the moment of truth by putting up an obstacle, such as asking for a feasibility study, if they're not willing to reverse their opinion as a result of it.
But you don't have to be in a decision-making role to be put on the spot. Periodically, coworkers come to you with their latest project and ask for your opinion.
When it isn't favorable, you tend to spout something that sounds positive without really making an endorsement -- saying the work is "original," "creative," "different" or "ingenious."
If that's all you say, however, you're usually faced with another question: "Do you really think it's good?"
The more artful dodgers try to forestall this by following up their first comment with one that diverts attention from their opinion, such as "How long did that take you?" Other examples include "What a lot of work went into that!" . . . "Is that practical?" . . . "Is it affordable?" . . . "Is it politic?" or "Is there any way to research that?"
On some occasions, you can plead ignorance: "I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough to appreciate what you've done."
But beware of this ploy: "Very interesting. What does your boss think?" If the person's boss has already spurned the brainchild in question, you're inviting yourself into a controversy. (Enough of these will be foisted on you anyway.)
The most difficult issue, though, is not how to be glib, but when. Which colleagues will accept nothing but stroking? Which will listen to a negative opinion, reflect on it and perhaps improve what they've done before submitting it on high?
The only guideline I can offer is this: The greater the mutual and recognized respect between you and a fellow worker, the greater the chance for an honest give-and-take that won't bruise anyone's feelings.
Nevertheless, you still have to operate with a certain amount of trial and a lot of error. And you can't take the Fifth Amendment at work. In the court of office opinion, no answer is a guilty answer.