When the need arises to criticize, be gentle

“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” (Frank A. Clark)

I love a good analogy to get my mind turning on a subject. The quote above gives some great advice when it comes to delivering criticism, and the analogy really does help make it real.

Have you ever planted a garden, or maybe re-seeded some grass? If you have, then you know that to get the seeds to germinate and grow, you have to water them every day. If the air is dry, you might even had to water them several times each day. Last year I had a patch of grass that needed to be re-seeded, and I was out there with my hose 2 or 3 times a day.

When I went out to water, how do you think I had my hose nozzle set? Did I turn on the jets, with the full stream of water and deluge the patch? Of course not! When the seeds were first laid, I would have washed them away, and when the grass was sprouting and fragile, the stream would have snapped off the blades before they even got a start.

Instead, I set my nozzle to a gentle setting, and I arced the water into the area. I did my best to make the watering I was doing represent a gentle, healthy, thorough rain shower.

So it should be when the need does arise to criticize others. If you’ve been following along with these principles, and have been diligently applying them, then the concept of giving criticism at all will seem foreign to you, as well it should. But, a study of this chapter in How to Win Friends and Influence People, will help guide you on your way.

The idea of this principle is to call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. This principle takes a lot of finesse to execute well, and I suggest that you give it a lot of thought. If done in a ham fisted way, or without careful planning, it may become easy to step over the line from indirect criticism into the world of passive-aggressive statements, and that is a place you won’t want to be.

Calling attention to mistakes indirectly is often a matter of leadership by example. One way that I have done this is by gently correcting something in a way that will not cause the person any embarrassment, but lets them know that the mistake was caught.

A while back I was in charge of a meeting that was international in nature. We had people dialed in from 4 continents to participate. Part of this meeting involved going over a list of action items, and one of the key elements was to make sure that the target date for completion was always in the future. It was easy to have them slip, if the person maintaining their entry on the list wasn’t diligent. Occasionally, the person who had a date slip was me. When this would happen, I would allow the stale date to be shown, and would make a point out of correcting myself in the meeting, along with a reminder of the importance of keeping those dates in the future. By doing this, and one else who had a stale date would automatically note it, and fix them quickly.

When we are less direct with our criticism, we are like the gentle spray of my hose, keeping the grass seedlings growing without snapping them off at the root. When the need arises to criticize, let us remember…

Principle 23. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.

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