Today I’m going to expand on a topic from my previous entry. In that entry I explained how important it is to be able to trust the information given to you, while also retaining a healthy dose of skepticism. In this entry I want to discuss how to provide feedback most effectively by avoiding the verbal eraser.
The phrase “trust, but verify” is more well-known than “trust and verify.” I specifically chose and because of the verbal eraser, which most commonly manifests as the word but. (It also shows up as though, although, while, and however.) As you might guess from the name, it erases everything that came before it in the sentence. This can lead to hurt feelings and seriously sabotage any future attempts you might make to give positive feedback, and why not? It’s a pop-culture comedy staple that when someone says something unexpectedly nice to someone, the receiver follows up with, “but?”
In the case of “trust, but verify,” I’m concerned that the verbal eraser makes verify more important than trust. To me that sounds like a very paranoid existence, indeed! We need to be able to take others at face value sometimes, even for important things. Trust, when properly earned and given, can be a powerful tool to improve your life and the lives of those around you.
This applies to friendship just as much as to business. By way of example, even if I know I’m bad at karaoke, I would probably be hurt if someone said to me, “I really enjoyed your singing, but you could have projected more.” Way to kill my karaoke high! I was probably anxious before I got up there. Now I’m worried that everyone is judging me!
How do we fix this? Clearly feedback is important when communicating expectations. Some corporate types say to make a “sandwich”: state a positive thing, then the negative thing, then finish with another positive thing. I’m not buying it. If praise-then-feedback has the potential for hurt feelings, tacking praise on to the end is like putting on knee protectors after you fell skateboarding: the damage is already done! Wouldn’t it be better to avoid the injury in the first place?
I’m going to clue you in to a wholly different technique: separate praise from feedback. Give me the positive feedback (“I really enjoyed your singing!”) right away. Please—I really need it. When I’m about to go up again the next time, then you can whisper to me, “This time make it even louder!” In business, give employees and colleagues praise when it’s due, then keep moving along. When a change in behavior is required, do the same thing. In a well-functioning business, your directness will be appreciated.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ever use the word but or its relatives. What I want you to do is to be mindful of when you use it to make sure that everyone gets the recognition they deserve, and the feedback they need, at the right times for them. To get a feel for this, practice some sentences both with and without the verbal eraser. Think about some times where someone was too harsh with you without realizing it, and some times that you might have caused hurt without meaning to. Then up your game by making mindfulness a part of your daily routine!
In this article, I explored my philosophy about the so-called verbal eraser. Let me know what you think in the comments!