We tend to underestimate the power and significance of an easily overlooked word: AND.
When we have two contrasting messages to deliver, one positive and the other negative, we often begin with the positive and conclude with the negative, linking them by saying "but":
I'd love to see you, but I'm so busy right now.
When we do this we send a subtle but distinct signal suggesting that the negative message is more important or more true than the positive, and the impact of the positive message on the recipient is diminished or cancelled out. This poses a particular dilemma for leaders, who often have a complex mix of positive and negative feedback for their employees:
I know you're trying hard, but it's not enough.
I love working with you, but we can't tolerate mistakes like that.
I care about you as a colleague, but I'm I'm really frustrated with you right now.
These messages can fail to have the desired impact because all that's heard is the second idea:
It's not enough.
We can't tolerate mistakes like that.
I'm really frustrated with you right now.
in some relationships, some organizations, and some cultures such bluntness is expected. But even in those settings leaders can underestimate the impact of their language at a given moment and its potential to be perceived as threatening.
A simple remedy is to substitute "and" for "but" when we're looking to convey a complex message that includes both positive and negative elements:
I know you're trying hard, and it's not enough.
I love working with you, and we can't tolerate mistakes like that.
I care about you as a colleague, and I'm I'm really frustrated with you right now.
This suggestion isn't foolproof, of course--people may still miss the positive message and focus on the negative. Nor should it be followed in a rigid or inflexible way--sometimes we do want people to focus exclusively on our negative feedback, and any attempt to soften its impact would be unhelpful.
And yet In my work with leaders and in my own experience, I've seen how this formulation can allow us to deliver a very tough message with empathy and compassion. I was recently reminded of this by Douglas Merrill, CEO of ZestFinance, who told me that earlier in his career a CEO he reported to called him into a board meeting after a high-stakes failure, and said, "I love you, and that can't ever happen again." The impact on Douglas? He felt an even stronger sense of loyalty and commitment.
Photo by Matthew McPherrin. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons. Thanks to Douglas Merrill for permission to share his story.