Words that Bite You in the 'But'
07/09/10
Special to the Jewish Week
Deborah Grayson Riegel
Deborah Grayson Riegel

Our kids had just departed for a month of sleep-away camp. Michael and I were finally alone, and we were ready for adventure, romance, and connection. For our first night, we had it all planned out, something we had never done before:

His and hers dentist appointments.

As Michael sat in one reclining chair, feet up, bibbed, and suctioned, I sat in the next examination room, similarly bedecked. Dr. W put on his four-lens glasses and attempted to relax me:

“I’m just going to take a look, so this won’t hurt yet.”

Yet? What did he think would possibly be soothing about the word “yet”? Or did he just toss in an extra word the way one might throw an extra hotdog on the grill when an unexpected guest shows up to the barbeque? 

In one fell swoop, his three-letter utterance “yet” undermined the entire message that preceded it. As several four-letter words crossed my mind, I braced myself for dental impact.

According to a Jewish proverb, “a bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.” Just like Horton the Elephant, we get one chance to mean what we say and say what we mean. And while we may get a do-over when the first communiqué doesn’t land the way we intended, there’s no substitute for getting it right the first time.

Many of the managers I coach with were trained at some point to give feedback using the so-called “sandwich” technique, which delivers a performance critique in this order: Positive Feedback, Negative Feedback, Positive Feedback . The goal of this approach is to surround the challenging news with comforting news on both ends. While I understand that this method aims to soften the blow for both deliverer and deliveree, it actually confuses everyone involved.

I think of this as a “Big But” Sandwich (which I think they may actually serve at the Second Avenue Deli): Here’s what you are doing well BUT here’s what you’re not doing well BUT here’s what you’re also doing well. It’s a series of counterarguments that does less to improve the performance of an employee and does more to make the supervisor feel less guilty. Besides, what kind of sandwich packs the middle with something unpalatable? Not a Jewish sandwich!

Some people collect Faberge eggs, rare wines or shopping bags. I collect words that undermine or negate the ideas surrounding them. (Believe it or not, I am actually quite fun at parties.) Think of these words like salt: using them isn’t inherently bad for us, and, in fact, can be a healthy part of a well-rounded vocabulary. Overused or sprinkled with abandon, these terms can raise blood pressures and even cause permanent damage to our relationships at home and at work.

Here are some words to use with extra care:

But: As in, “I love you, but…” or “Your work is excellent, but…”. That “but” is a magic eraser that wipes out the gentle, kind and compassionate part of your message, leaving no trace behind. Instead, become so liberal and deliberate with your support and encouragement on a regular basis that you can deliver bad news clearly, concisely and quickly. The cushion should already be in place to give your critique a soft landing.

Everybody/Nobody: Ah, the power of absolute! When my daughter Sophie told me for the tenth time that everybody in her third grade class had an iPod Touch, and could she please please have one, I told her that I had a very hard time believing that everyone had one of these $199 devices. I also reminded her that she was batting 0 with me in negotiating for things that she wanted by using the “everybody has one” argument. A quick study, Sophie tried a new approach: “Mom, guess what? Nobody in my class has an iPod Touch. Can I have one now?” Smart cookie, but I wasn’t biting. “Nobody” falls into the same category as “everybody.”

All you need is one example of a “somebody who” and your whole argument crumbles. Better to stick with Many/Few to keep your credibility intact.

Always/Never: I’d love to say that Sophie’s never getting an iPod Touch. What I really mean is “it’s unlikely”. I learned to modify my unyielding stance on expensive electronics after I had told my kids for years that they were never getting a Nintendo Wii. And then their beloved Aunt Debby bought them one for Chanukah. “Never” was no longer the truth, and my integrity suffered a small blow. Sure, I could have returned the Wii to keep my credibility, but it didn’t seem worth the risk that two children and one sister-in-law might not speak to me again for decades. See, not “never again” – just decades.

The good news is, my dentist didn’t hurt me at all. The bad news is, it didn’t matter because I was already primed for pain. Our words have the power to confuse or clarify, deflate or inspire, wreck or renew.

Let me know what words prime you for pain or pleasure!

 

Last Update:

07/20/2010 - 16:55

Comments

My "Big But" concern is when you thank someone for doing something for you and they respond, "NOT A PROBLEM." What is that supposed to mean? It certainly doesn't come across as, "My pleasure!"
LGG: Great point about how do you constructively criticize without negating the positives. I suggest to managers, colleagues, partners, parents, etc. that you make positive feedback a regular part of your daily interpersonal "diet" so that when the inevitable negative feedback comes, it has a cushioned landing. I use the Relationship Bank Account model -- if you have lots and lots of deposits into your relationship bank account (praise, saying thank you, trusting the other person), making occasional withdrawals (such as negative feedback) shouldn't greatly upset the balance. Hope this helps! Deborah
Great article. Well written and humorous; love the personal stories. Great point too. (Notice no "BUT" here) What's the flip side? How do you constructively criticize without negating the positives?
My mother shared her mother's wisdom with me: Your teeth are like a little fence...words that stay inside belong only to you. Words that get out belong to the world. Your column gives me 'stuff' to think about and makes me smile.
I love reading what you write! Your commentary is right on the mark. I'm going to think more carefully about how I give feedback to my students now. I work with elementary education students at UNF who are doing their intern-ship (formerly known as student teaching.) I observe them in the classroom and tell them things they have done well. I also give them ideas for how they can improve their instruction. I try to give them suggestions they can actually use, or ask them questions so they can come up with ideas. I'll be thinking more about how I can improve my feedback so they don't get the "good news, bad news" approach.
Thanks so much! This is just what I needed to hear this morning. "But," what I am also thinking is that silences can also hurt...
Always thought the "Big But" sandwich was an effective way to offer constructive criticism. Now that I think about it, though, the “Big But” sandwich has no place in a professional business environment. Deb, you hit the nail on the head; delivering a message using such a technique not only creates confusion for the recipient of the news, it allows the deliverer of the message to get off easy. I have always found it most beneficial to work with a manager who is upfront and not afraid to tell it like it is, while still maintaining a degree of humility. I am always more inclined to enhance my performance when I know my manager is being straight with me. Great article!
Once again - Deb nails it! Will make me think about how those tiny word choices make big differences. Particularly laughed about the "everybody" comment...Whenever someone tells me "Everbody thinks this..." I always ask them to go through and name SPECIFIC people. You're right Deb - EVERYBODY is NOBODY!

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