The instinctive reaction to criticism is to defend: “Well, it’s not my fault… I didn’t know… She did it, too… You did something worse!”
The usual advice is to sandwich criticism between praise, but that doesn’t really soften the blow. The positive comments can seem like meager consolation prizes, and the recipient of the criticism still feels the need to argue and justify the bad behavior.
So, if we want our child, co-worker, or significant other to respond constructively to our criticism, we need to be able to give it in a way that decreases their defensiveness.
Here’s a formula for a soft criticism:
Step 1) Offer an excuse.
If you provide an excuse, the other person doesn’t have to scramble for one. Offering an excuse shows you know he or she is a good person, with good intentions, despite the mistake. For example, you could say, “I know you didn’t mean to…” or “You probably didn’t realize…” or “I understand that you were trying to…” or “I know you’re busy with…”
Step 2) Explain the problem.
This is the part you’ve been waiting for! After you offer the excuse, add a “but” explaining the impact of the person’s action. Stay focused on specific behavior and how it affects you. “BUT, when you [behavior], [negative outcome].”
Step 3) Move forward.
There’s no point in dwelling on what’s past. Instead, talk about what you’d like to happen next. You could say, “From now on, could you please…?” Or, you could get the other person’s help in figuring out how to solve the problem. “What do you think we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Be sure to pick a calm moment for your soft criticism. Use a calm and friendly tone, so the other person knows you’re genuinely trying to work things out. If you say these words in a sarcastic or condescending way, they will back fire. A soft criticism doesn’t a guarantee that the other person will hear you, but it’s a caring way to raise concerns.