We recently discussed the old, awful chestnut — “With All Due Respect…” — and how that phrase is an indicator of an insult or a criticism to come. What is the best way to approach someone with criticism? Do you need to set them up first with a padded phrase? Is it best to just start a critical sentence without an introductory warning? 

“I need to talk to you…” is instantly shudder-inducing. I remember a situation when I was on the radio softball team and we would get together during the summer so we could raise money for charity. Our team was always bedraggled and we were an easy mark for other softball teams in the area. We weren’t supposed to win — though we did a lot — we were just supposed to be charity fodder to help embolden the cause-of-the-day’s coffers.

We took softball practice seriously and our team was filled with high-testosterone salesmen who were used to winning their own wars and beating individual sales quotas. Asking them to think like a team and play like a team was a difficult concept for some to abide. Correcting bad defensive form or a throwing angle was always a touchy subject, because to criticize the man, is to crush the tender ego.

During one practice session I overheard the guy playing second base give a suggestion to the guy playing shortstop and I thought the method used to offer the correction was non-confrontational and actually a bit elegant in its dispensation. Second base started his shortstop criticism by saying,

“If I may…” and paused for the shortstop to confirm it was okay to continue — the approach is so forgiving you don’t mind what comes next — and the second baseman finished the thought with a suggestion how to better hold the ball for throwing. Shortstop took the correction and started winging harder and better.

Today I realize “If I may…” may seem a little “Mr. Blue” and “Mr. Pink” and “Mr. Green” formal in a Taking of Pelham One Two Three code-phrase sort of way, but the phrase has a civil approach I find appealing much in the same way how the head of the college at my first teaching job insisted on addressing everyone by their last names and never our first names.

I became “Mr. Boles” for the first time in my life and I was working with “Ms. Gentry” and “Mr. Biaforsky” and “Mrs. Kelp.” That style of leadership may seem thin and superficial, but it did add an air of formality and distance — some of the faculty complained it was too much of a “prep school” approach to dealing with people — to a too close and informal mindset that helped foster respect among the faculty and the students.

“Mr. Boles, if I may…” has a fine and elegant ring to it and I’ll listen to anything else that follows…

15 Comments

  1. I agree with you about “with all due respect”. It’s amazing how often I hear that in meetings, usually preceeding a personal attack on the recipient rather than a helpful suggestion.
    The other phrase I hate is “Don’t you think …”. Although usually well-intended I always find it grates on my nerves.
    I like the “If I may .. ” approach and it’s one that I use myself from time to time. If I can I’ll try and ask somebody about the method they use and why they’ve chosen to do something a specific way. Sometimes they will discover halfway through explaining it that there’s a better way (so I don’t have to tell them). If not then I can always follow up with “can I make a suggestion?”. After I’ve listened to them for a few minutes they usually say yes.

  2. Hi Mike!
    It’s good to hear from you on this topic!
    Yes, “with all due respect…” is always followed by a zinger! When you hear that phrase directed at you, duck, because nothing sweet is being thrown your way!
    I like adding… “don’t you think” to our list of “Never Use!”
    “If I may…” gives the recipient the opportunity to shut down the criticism with a simple, “No.”
    I think the ability to control what’s about to hit you — or not — makes the phrase much more acceptable on a human level.

  3. “If I may …” is a lot better than what is usually heard on softball fields — often from parents yelling at full volume at their own kids!
    Some phrases can cause anxiety just because nothing good every comes from them: “Come to my office” is one of them.
    I used to work at a place where that was heard a lot.
    The intercom on the phone would beep, then I’d hear my boss’ voice on the speakerphone:
    Chris, Come to my office.”
    It always scared me, even though most of the time it was just to discuss something routine.
    Maybe it stems from fear of “the office” instilled in every school kid. Nobody ever wanted to go to the office!

  4. You’re right about being called to the office, Chris. What’s even worse is when your boss calls you and doesn’t leave a message except, “Umm… call me back as soon as you can.” When details need to be discussed live on the phone there’s trouble a’brewin’!

  5. Hi David,
    I used to get those types of calls also. There’s nothing worse than a non-detailed voice mail.
    The worst was when the boss used the receptionist to get in touch with me.
    At my old place, the receptionist would call and tell me the boss wanted to talk to me.
    Usually it was nothing serious, but the receptionist would get me worried just by her tone of voice.
    She always had a way of saying “The Boss wants to talk to you” that produced fear and anxiety because it always sounded like “You’re in trouble” even if the call was about something as simple as “Are you going to be available to go to lunch when you get back to the office?”

  6. Chris!
    You’re right that tone of voice is a powerful instrument and those with little power can use their tone of voice to affect more important targets around them.
    I had a boss once who loved email and hated the phone — just like me –- if he ever called an employee on the phone you knew you were in trouble! Most of us would cut him off before he could say “hello” by saying: “What’s wrong now?”
    😀

  7. That’s a good point. If you approach someone with a criticism, preferably it is a constructive one, and presumably you wish them to make some change. You need to take care in your approach so as not to turn off their listening before you’ve even begun. “If I may” is a good introduction – assuming the speaker does pause and allow the person to accept or reject the input. Then there’s “What do you think about …?” and, “Have you ever tried…?”
    Do any of those work for you?

  8. Hi Antoinette!
    Yes, you have to pause after saying “If I may…” or you’re a bully and being disingenuous.
    😀
    “What do you think about…” comes off as weak and uncertain to me — people who need help usually want direct attention instead of wondering…
    “Have you ever tried…” sounds slightly know-it-all and haughty to me — in the “been there and done that…” vein…

  9. I think “We” instead of “I” works better because the moment you say “we” in a team – you are incorporating everyone.
    And if someone doesn’t like the way I want to do something – well, he/she has to come up with a better idea!