“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”
– Mother Teresa of Calcutta
“A word of encouragement during a failure is worth more than an hour of praise after success.”
“Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German Playwright, Poet, Novelist and Dramatist. 1749-1832)
Leader, coach, parent, or spouse: we all interact with others on a daily basis. In the course of these daily interactions, we often offer our suggestions to help others succeed. Given properly, helpful suggestions will actually help. Given improperly, they may do more harm than good. Recently, I had an experience that highlights one key principle to consider any time you offer corrective or instructive comments.
I created a marketing brochure. To make sure I had considered every detail on the piece, I asked my wife (Sandra) to look it over and to give me her input. She looked at it for about 5 seconds and immediately suggested a layout improvement. As she made her comment, I felt irritated. Since I had asked for her comments, I chose not to voice my frustration.
As I returned to my office, my frustration turned to curiosity. I began to wonder what had happened in that moment. Why would someone (me) get upset with corrective comments when the comments were initially requested and then offered with the best of intentions?
Reflecting on that question, I came to the following conclusion: even when we ask for correction, we still want to be affirmed.
In Sandra's defense, let me fill in a few more details.
I completely trust her intentions. We were both pressed for time. I asked for her input while she was working on another time constrained project. The problem in this situation began with the timing of my request. I did not give her the appropriate time to carefully evaluate and consider her response. Given the time constraints of this situation, she offered her input with the sole intent to help me create a better product. She had no intent or desire to criticize or ridicule me personally.
And still, my initial internal reaction was negative. I did not react to her attitude, her tone, or her words. Instead, my desire for affirmation created my reaction. Fortunately, I recognized that my internal, emotional reaction was not appropriate, and I controlled my outward response. This is not always the case.
Much of the time, you will communicate with people who will not control their responses. They may be hurt or upset by someone else or some other event. Maybe they do not have complete trust in your intentions. Maybe your relationship is not strong enough for them to take your comments the way that you intend them. Whatever the cause, if you offer “constructive criticism” without first affirming them, they will likely respond negatively — even when your intentions are pure and honorable.
Once offended or upset, people often have difficulty shifting their mental focus to recognize the positive intentions of others. So, once upset, most people will not receive your corrective comments. They will likely focus on their initial negative feeling and either ignore or resist your suggestions.
As leaders, I encourage you to work with, rather than against, this aspect of human nature. In order to improve the odds that people hear your suggestions and corrective comments with the perspective that you offer them, learn to…
Affirm Before Correcting
In practice, this means that you should offer an honest, genuine positive comment before you offer any suggestions for improvement.
As you practice applying this principle, remember these three key points about affirmation:
1. Specific — Make the affirmation as specific as the correction.
Generalities and non-specific comments may come across as condescending. Pick specific points or observations for your praise and affirmation. Using my brochure layout as an example, “I like the way you used these pictures to highlight your main point” is better than “This looks good.”
2. Brief — Make your comments brief and to the point.
When you speak too long, people get lost in the talking and miss the point.
3. Message — Watch your tone and body language.
If your tone sounds condescending or your body language is stiff, you will likely communicate bad things to your listener. Make sure your tone and body language convey the feeling that you want to help and not the feeling that you want to condemn.
So for now, I encourage you to remember to. . .
Follow the ABC’s of correction — Affirm Before Correcting.