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If you need to criticize someone, here are some basic ground rules to ensure that your criticism does not go below the belt.
1. Wait for the appropriate moment.
Make sure that the person can give you his or her undivided attention, and that there is no one else present to hear the criticism. Also, make sure you are not emotional or angry.
“If you have a minute, could you come into my office, please?”
2. Try not to be exclusively negative.
Criticism is usually easier to take when it is “sandwiched” between two positive statements. If that is not possible, at least try to start on a positive note. Use “I” language whenever you can.
“I realize that you’ve been working very hard, and I appreciate that very much. It’s just that I’m getting the feeling you aren’t paying as much attention to detail as I’m used to from you.”
3. Focus on the problem, not the person.
Attacking someone personally is counterproductive. Bring up the specific problem, and avoid saying “always” or “never”.
“It’s really important for everyone to keep to the deadlines, and I’m concerned that your report is now four days behind schedule. In future, I would like you to tell me in advance if you’re going to be held up.”
4. Give encouragement at the end.
The meeting should end on a positive note wherever possible. Use words like “confident”, “sure”, or “satisfied” to signal your faith in the employee.
“I’m confident that this was a simple oversight, and as far as I’m concerned, the matter is dropped.”
When you tell people what to do, you should soften your order to make it more polite. There are several ways to do this, many of which can be combined with each other:
1. Saying “please”
• “Put him through, please.”
A “please” will take some of the directness out of a command, but not all of it. If you’re in a hurry and the situation is fairly routine, a simple command softened by “please” is acceptable. But if you do it too often, you may be regarded as rude.
2. Using a modal verb
“Al, could you come into my office, please?”
“Would you ring up my wife and tell her I’m going to be delayed?”
“Can you photocopy this for me, please?”
The modal verbs “can”, “could” and “would” are commonly used to tone down an order. They are often used together with the word “please”.
3. Saying “just”
“Could you just take a look at this report and tell me what you think?”
“Just” is a common addition to orders and requests. By using this adverb, you imply that you are not asking for a very big favour.
4. Saying “for a moment”
“Could you (just) step into my office for a moment, please?”
Adverbial phrases such as “for a moment” or “for a minute” are common softeners. They show that you don’t want to waste the other person’s time.
5. Using “I”
“Sam, I’d like you to call the caterer and confirm the booking.”
“Mark, I need you to go next door and ask Melanie for the budget figures.”
Using a form such as “I’d like” or “I need/want” is meant to make the command more personal. It implies that the task is important, and that you are entrusting the person with it.
6. Using phrases like “If you’ve got a minute”
“If you’ve got a minute, I’d like to have a word with you.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like you to pick Bart up from the airport.”
These introductory phrases are strong softeners, often used when the task requested is a fairly big one. Try not to overuse these forms or you may seem too timid (unterwürfig).
7. Being indirect
“Malcolm, have you got a minute?”
“Have you finished that letter yet?”
Often, simple orders are not expressed directly, but are implied. Here, looking out of her office and asking Malcolm whether he’s got a minute, the boss is telling him she’d like to talk to him. The second question is meant as an indirect reminder to finish the letter.
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