To tell someone wrong, yet make them feel good

A man goes to his doctor and says, “I don’t think my wife’s hearing isn’t as good as it used to be. What should I do?”

The doctor replies, “Try this test to find out for sure. When your wife is in the kitchen doing dishes, stand fifteen feet behind her and ask her a question, if she doesn’t respond keep moving closer asking the question until she hears you.”

The man goes home and sees his wife preparing dinner. He stands fifteen feet behind her and asks, “What’s for dinner, honey?”

He gets no response, so he moves to ten feet behind her and asks again. Still no response, so he moves to five feet. Still no answer. Finally, he stands directly behind her and says, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

She replies, “For the fourth time, I said chicken.”

This joke being circulated among friends online has a message for us. People hardly realise their own mistakes but instead try to find mistakes in others. Due to an asymmetry of social relations, this mistake hardly goes unchecked. But, the message also shows how to make one aware of one’s mistakes.

A mother is confronted with a problem of her mischievous child running on to the road. How should she convince the kid not to do so?

The child is naughty and rather obstinate. There are two ways of telling the child. The mother normally scolds the child and drags him away.

The child may turn recalcitrant and do the same avoiding the mother‘s attention. Instead, a mother can say, “If you do so, anything can happen to you. Mother would be pained. Do you like your mother being pained?”

The child, who is not scared of something happening to him, will not want his mother to be sorrowful.

Thus, the best way to convince the child or an adult, at home or in the office is to make the person realise and acknowledge his mistake rather than bombard him or her with a string of advice.

Love more than fear, advice more than an order, practical approach rather than prophetic attitude goes a long way in convincing people to change their attitudes, beliefs and practices.

Psychologist Steven Berglas offers us a few tips on how to tell someone they’re wrong and make them still feel good about it. There are plenty of reasons not to tell someone they’re wrong. It’s uncomfortable, for one thing. You also might come off as rigid, unsympathetic, arrogant, or worst of all, politically incorrect.

The advice may be indispensable. But, its effectiveness to bring about a behavioural change largely depends on how you tell it. This is what constructive criticism is all about. If your criticism is perceived to be non-antagonistic, its acceptance would be more.

But such persuasive criticism requires thought, effort and compassion. As Gandhiji said do not hate the sinner, but hate the sin. Similarly, do not be hostile to the person who commits the mistake. Such an objective effort requires little more empathy.

Try to soften criticism with qualifications like “With all due respect,” “No offense” or “Don’t take me wrong”.
I had sent a synopsis of an article for publication to the internationally reputed journal, ‘Harvard Business Review’. One day I received a rejection mail. It was sad but not insipid.

The mail read as follows: Thank you for your submission to the Harvard Business Review. Members of the editorial staff have now discussed the proposed piece, and we are sorry to report that we will not be pursuing it for publication.

We regret that due to the volume of proposals and manuscripts we receive, we are unable to provide further feedback on your work. We appreciate your interest in HBR and your patience during the review process. We wish you the best in placing the article elsewhere.

This is how even unpleasant news can be told in a sugar-coated manner. The message carries no negative comment on my article. The effort was appreciated. However, constructive criticism need not be a circumscribed message.

James G Ellis, Dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, says, “You need to deliver your view without beating around the bush. But make it clear that your goal is ‘movement toward constructive change,’ and nothing else.” Ambiguity is your enemy when telling someone they’re wrong. Be concrete and don’t sermonise. Never, ever talk down. Focus on behaviour, not character.

Show them the way. Criticism without an action plan is worthless. Give them direction. It is easy to say something is wrong, but, difficult, yet useful, to say what is right. Instead of condemning one, suggest the alternative.

The way you make someone deal with the mistake matters most. Exhort one to convert a mistake into an opportunity. I am sure, you would be a friend in need but if you start pointing out mistakes, you may be perceived as a foe.

The co-author of the book ‘Brilliant Mistakes’, Paul Schoemaker, rightly warns, “Most people tend to overreact to their slip-ups. They make an asymmetric evaluation of gains and losses so that losses loom much larger than gains.

As a result, they may be tempted to hide their mistakes, or even worse, continue down paths that have proven unproductive.”

Don‘t harp over someone’s mistakes. Focus on the future action rather than dwelling too much on the past mistake. Such an obsession is unproductive. Show how a mistake can be rectified and the impact remedied.

Tell how to go forward, the next time around. This will help people to make a different assessment of their mistake rather than putting up a stiff defence or shifting the blame onto someone else.




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