Hendrie Weisinger tells the story of an editor for a large metro newspaper who was supervising a journalism student. She wrote well, but the organization of the article was poor. Over time, the editor realized that his written criticisms brought about no improvement. When he told her directly what to do and how to do it, she became argumentative and defensive.
The situation came to a head when she presented another poorly organized article. As Weisinger recounts it, the editor said, "I was about to jump all over her. But before I did, I caught myself. I realized that putting her down was not going to help."
The editor tried a different approach, asking, "Did you hear about that murder?"
The student said, "What murder?"
"The one that came in on the wire service."
"Who got murdered?"
"At his house."
"He got shot"
At this point, the editor said, "You just asked the six most important questions in newspaper writing. Go rewrite this and put that information in your lead!"
Questions for solutions
Kudos for the editor, says Weisinger, a Westport, Conneticut, psychologist whose most recent book is The Power of Positive Criticism. "In this case, by asking one strategic question, the editor spurred the reporter to ask a series of questions. His interaction with the reporter stimulated her thinking and protected her self-esteem."
Here are Weisinger's four recommended steps for delivering criticism this way:
- Devise questions that will lead to the crucial information. "How do you think the sales division will react to this report?" rather than "You should have checked with the sales division."
- Use phrasing such as "what if." Don't ask questions in a patronizing manner that dares the person to guess the answer.
- If the recipient has an unexpected answer, explore it. Then state your views as another possibility. "That may be true. It may also be that."
- If you're concerned that you may appear manipulative, explain what you're doing. "Let me ask you a few questions; then I'll share my thoughts, and we can come up with some answers together."
"In effect," says Weisinger, "criticism by question leads your recipients to discover solutions for themselves."
To learn more: The Power of Positive Criticism, by Hendrie Weisinger (2000 Amacom, 184 pp., $15.00 (paper), tel. 800-262-9699, amanet.org).
(contributed by Sodexho Marriott Services)