Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Thinking before speaking

Today Paul Litwack, who calls himself “the Capability Improvement Coach,” asked readers of his newsletter to contribute ideas on how to “tame the tongue.”

“Words can be powerful,” he says, “and I too sometimes treat them like they are free.”

I believe some of the trickiest communication problems take place when you are in a position to criticize others. In my experience, many people in the role of mentor or advisor avoid such conversations, since the results can be so unpredictable – and sometimes messy. To shun such opportunities, however, is to abdicate your responsibility to your protégés, clients or colleagues.

So here is the advice I e-mailed Paul.

When working toward a criticism or critique, whether it be an employee, client or colleague, I speak slowly and carefully. I establish the difficulty of completing this specific task successfully, to reduce any sense of failure or shame on the part of the person who is sub-performing. I will often talk about a time when I made a similar mistake. (Fortunately, there are lots of those.)

Before I start talking about remedies and strategies for improvement, I like to get the person talking about what they think they could do better.

If you don't do all this in your role as mentor, you run the risk of having the other person focus on one thing: their mistake. Their failure. They may even start internally to question their ability to do the job. They certainly won't be listening to whatever you're saying next -- which is why you need to get them talking and focusing on moving forward.

In business today, not enough bosses/colleagues/consultants have the chutzpah to confront and correct. And most of those who do focus too much on the negative. Yet when done properly and constructively, criticism can be a precious gift.

How do you tame your tongue?

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