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…