In working on my new book, Strategic Sales Presentations, I’ve shared the manuscript with some colleagues and friends for their perspective. Their feedback has been almost uniformly complimentary, and they’ve further inflated my own opinion of the value of the book, its content, and its writing.
BUT, I just received comments from a more objective reviewer who does not have personal ties to me. His comments back to me initially echoed some of the same praise I’ve grown accustomed to receiving, but then he launched into what he saw as the shortcomings. Let me tell you, it was painful to read—yet it was exactly what I needed to hear.
He made three suggestions which make a tremendous amount of sense and which in retrospect seem obvious. They were not obvious to me, probably because I was too close to it. I suspect they were obvious to previous readers, though, and if I shared the latest reviewer’s comments with them, they would probably say they agree as well. Yet, they never said anything to me. Maybe they were trying to be tactful and spare my feelings, or maybe they did not want to feel uncomfortable themselves.
Sometimes compliments are the easy way out. We don’t want to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of making someone else uncomfortable, so we choose the path of least resistance, in which case we’re making it as much about ourselves as we are about the other person.
It reminds me of a lesson I learned early in my sales training career. I was facilitating some role plays and one of the participants did a very poor job. Not wanting to hurt his self-confidence, I performed all kinds of verbal gymnastics trying to find something good to say about his performance. Immediately one of the other participants called me out on it; he rightly pointed out that my feedback was worse than useless, and that I was not doing the job I was being paid for.
I was trying too hard to apply a feedback sandwich, in which you sandwich your improvement suggestions between two positives. This is designed to preserve the self-esteem of the one being corrected. Yet, maybe sparing someone’s feelings is exactly the wrong approach. Of course, you don’t want to be brutal or gratuitously harsh, but by trying to soften the emotional impact are you not harming the learning process? Touching a warm stove may or may not teach you a lesson, but touch a hot one stove, and you’ll never forget the lesson.
Second, how often do we strive so hard to be “constructive” that we lose clarity, directness and honesty?
Third, the sandwich approach may also backfire, because our natural confirmation bias disposes us to hear only what we want to hear and disregard the rest.
So, if you really want to be a friend, if you really want to help, give them something useful and be direct. Of course, if you don’t care that much, you can always take the approach that my friend Gary Connor did. He was at a conference and listened to an excruciatingly bad presentation. Immediately afterwards, the speaker asked him what he thought. Gary’s reply: “Of all the presentations I heard today, yours was definitely the most recent.” The speaker beamed and thanked him for the feedback!