Have you ever experienced any of these scenarios?
You have an idea or project you're excited about. You work on it. You share it with someone you care about, whereupon your friend (colleague, boss, spouse, or parent) takes one look at the report (essay, business plan or draperies) and begins pointing out everything that's wrong with it.
Or perhaps you've been the one to offer a critique too quickly. Someone tells you about a project they're excited about. You offer some "helpful" suggestions to make it even better. But after the words leave your mouth, you notice their effect. The person who was once excited is now deflated by your critique.
Or maybe you're one of those clueless, the people who think they're helpful, but who are really just critical. If that's you, I can tell you right now, over time people learn to brace themselves before they share anything with you, and eventually they stop sharing at all.
When you offer suggestions in the wrong way, people won't perceive you as helpful. They'll just perceive you as critical.
Here's the problem with criticism: It doesn't matter if it's true; it still has a detrimental effect on people. It lessens their enthusiasm, it erodes their trust and it weakens your relationship.
But that doesn't mean you can't offer suggestions. If someone shares something with you that "needs work" your suggestions can be appreciated if you know how to serve them up.
Here are two secrets to keep you in the helpful zone without crossing over into criticism.
1. Don't add too much "value."
I learned this lesson from my great colleague and mentor Marshall Goldsmith. Goldsmith, who coaches CEO's and was recently named No. 1 Leadership Thinker in the World by Thinkers50 - Harvard Business Review, describes a scenario where an employee comes in excited about a new project. Their manager loves the idea and proceeds to provide suggestions for making it better. "Congratulations," said Goldsmith, the idea is 20 percent better, but the employees' ownership of it just went down by 50 percent."
It's better for someone to be enthusiastic about their own good idea, than to be less enthusiastic about implementing the perfect idea you helped make great.
2. Praise first, offer help second.
Sometimes help is appropriate, but if the first words out of your mouth are negative, they will assume that's your overall assessment. If you like what they've done, start with the positive.
My daughter recently reorganized her room. When she called me in to show off the results, the first thing I noticed were the magazine photos taped to the wall. But instead of blurting out, "Don't tape stuff to the wall, it will take the paint off," I notice her proud face eagerly looking for approval so I praised the fabulous parts first. I noticed the beautiful makeshift drape forged from netting. I admired the images of the photos taped to the wall. Then after we had both reveled in her results, I said, "I love these photos, would you like some poster gum so they don't take the paint off when you want to rearrange them?"
Same recommended action, take down the tape, different emotional result. Instead of a critique, it's a helpful suggestion. I'm hardly perfect, but after hundreds of times doing it wrong, I've learned how much the positioning and the order matter.