Listen carefully and see if you can detect what these two examples have in common:
The color scheme for the new web design is spot on, but the layout feels crowded. You’re a skilled designer, so we’re confident you can fix that.
This hummus tastes delicious, but you added too much cumin. You’re on your way to becoming a hummus pro.
Okay, did you catch the pattern?
Looks like someone is serving up some compliment sandwiches! Yum yum.
Compliment sandwiches represent a single piece of criticism “sandwiched” between two flimsy compliments. They are supposed to soften the blow of criticism.
The problem with compliment sandwiches is that everything but the filling gets ignored. As soon as the “but” is uttered, the listener knows criticism is coming, and that is all they will remember from the interaction.
Sounds like there’s room for improvement here…
In this lesson, we’re going to throw those moldy compliment sandwiches in the trash and explore a better way to give constructive criticism.
Now that the compliment sandwich has been disposed of, you’re probably looking for a new way to give constructive criticism in a polite way.
Before we go any further, I should highlight the “constructive” nature of this criticism. When criticism is constructive, that means the focus is on helping the recipient improve, rather than on the recipient’s faults.
Constructive criticism is feedback that, when delivered properly, should leave the recipient feeling excited about an opportunity to do better.
Now, for a lot of us, criticism is tough to deliver, and even tougher to receive. Even when that criticism is constructive.
Fortunately, the method I’m about to introduce helps streamline the process.
The method is called the “velvet hammer”.
This is a term coined by Joy Baldridge, author of The Joy in Business: Innovative Ideas to Find Positivity (and Profit) In Your Daily Work Life.
Baldridge highlights the fact that words carry a lot of meaning and power, so we must choose our words wisely. Once uttered, you can’t unsay what’s been said.
Because of this, it’s especially critical that we pay careful attention when giving feedback and criticism. As Baldridge says, “When you communicate something to somebody, it’s irreversible and irretrievable.”
So, it’s all up to you, dear critic, to choose the right words, lest you offend your recipient. No pressure though.
But don’t despair, because Baldridge’s velvet hammer method provides a formula that you can follow to really “hit the nail on the head”.
Let’s take a look:
Start by asking them for a minute of their time, informing them that you need their help.
This looks like:
- Hey Jeff, got five minutes? Awesome. I could use your help.
- Got a minute, Teresa? Great, it shouldn’t take long. I’d love a hand with something.
By initiating the process with a simple request for help, you immediately put them at ease. You are implying they are capable of something that you are not. This sets a friendly and collaborative tone and it makes them feel useful and capable.
Now, you’re probably wondering: what on earth do you need their help with? It’s their problem, not yours!
Well, think again. If you care enough to offer criticism, then it’s also your problem. And that’s why you need their help. You will need their help in fixing something they did or didn’t do – whatever it is that you plan to offer constructive criticism about.
And you need their help with this because you can’t change it for them. The change comes from within them.
This could apply to any variety of behaviors that need fixing. Examples include arriving late to meetings, falling behind on important deliverables, or submitting unpolished work.
But the behaviors could also be, and often are, communication-related. This includes issues like inattentive listening, uncollaborative language, or unprofessional diction.
Ok, so we’ve asked them for help.
Once they’ve agreed, here’s what you say next:
“I’ve noticed quite a few typos in your recent client reports, [PAUSE]. I was wondering what’s causing this problem, [PAUSE]. I’m concerned it will give our clients the impression that we don’t care about them. What do you suggest we do?”
Pay close attention to the structure here:
- You state the problem
- You explain why it is important to you
- You invite the recipient to offer a solution.
By stating the problem clearly at the outset, you avoid any confusion as to what is being discussed. This is very important.
After that, you provide a clear justification for why it matters. This proves you aren’t just nitpicking. It offers a valid motivation for approaching them.
Finally, instead of telling them what to do about it, you give them agency over finding a solution, while also indicating that you are there as a thought partner to help solve this with them. This is critical because it invests the recipient in fixing the problem without you coming across as domineering or combative.
When executed correctly, the recipient will be grateful for your feedback and eager to make amends.
Alrighty, there you have it. In one fell swoop, we’ve replaced the compliment sandwich with the velvet hammer.
Let’s briefly recap:
- Ensure that your feedback is constructive, oriented toward improvement rather than faults
- Initiate the process with a request for help
- Deliver your feedback clearly, explaining why it is important to you
- Invite them to join you in coming up with a solution
Providing constructive feedback is a fundamental communication skill to have. And, as with most topics we discuss, it’s not reserved only for those in managerial roles or for the workplace.
Think about it, we give constructive criticism to friends, family, and anyone else we interact with on a daily basis.
It pays lifetime dividends to get good at it.
The velvet hammer packs a firm punch, but it does so in a softer way. It emphasizes that you have the recipients’ best interests at heart. And it says you’re there to help them fix things.
Now I encourage you to practice this at home first. Try giving this criticism to an imaginary person. Then get a friend to role-play it with you (and as a bonus, they’ll learn the skill as well!) You can even film the interaction so that you can analyze your word choice, pacing, and intonation. Remember, you’re going for a thoughtful, collaborative, and open-minded approach here.
The end result is an efficient, polite, and collaborative way of delivering constructive criticism.
Not bad, eh?
So now that I've shared our thoughts, I would love to hear about your experiences with constructive criticism – giving and receiving. Where did you encounter it and how did it make you feel? What strategies can you think of to give constructive criticism? Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments below.
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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners.
Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.
Happy Explearning ⚡