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Begin with Praise

Begin with Praise

"That was perfect. Let's try it one more time, with a little more enthusiasm." The perfectionist director is something of a Hollywood cliché. Stanley Kubrik reportedly filmed one scene of the Shining 127 times, which was probably sufficient to drive the actors as crazy as the characters they are portraying.

What makes the cliché amusing is the natural dichotomy. If the scene was indeed perfect there would be no need to try again, and certainly not to try something different. But it also reflects one of Dale Carnegie's key leadership principles: Begin with praise and honest appreciation.

"A barber lathers a man before he shaves him," Carnegie notes. Lathering softens the skin and prepares it for the blade. As a result, the shave itself is less harsh and less likely to result in cuts. Honest appreciation and praise can likewise soften the ego and prepare it for criticism that will then seem less harsh and cutting.  

Robert Cialdini calls this "Pre-suasion." The pre-suader spends time making the recipient receptive to a message or request prior to delivering it. Only after the favorable conditions have been created will the request be made. Con artists have long used this technique, which they call the "put-up."

Other versions of the principle do not even require pointing out the mistake. Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Royce Gracie recommends using "the perfect correction" method. Under this method, when the student's arm is in the wrong position the instructor gently moves it into the correct position, and then says "perfect." Rather than set up a negative frame by saying the initial position is incorrect, the instructor simply gives positive reinforcement to the correct position. He still begins with praise, but has already eliminated the need to "try one more time..."


Of course there is one caveat to the advice to begin with praise. As I learned when I attended the Dale Carnegie course, it is important not to negate the initial praise by saying "but..." This is almost a signal to the recipient that the praise was not genuine. Instead, much like the perfectionist movie director, it is better simply to move on to the critique without a transition. Instead of "that was great, but let's try..." it is "That was great. Let's try..."

How can you apply this to your interactions at work? Let's consider some examples.

"That was a great presentation. You have great stage presence. In fact, I enjoyed watching you so much that I found the slides distracting. I bet it would be even better if you cut the number of slides in half."

"Your memo is very clear and to the point. You might consider adding some examples, because many of the recipients are less familiar with the subject than you are."

"We could really use someone with your technical skills in a leadership position. We also need someone with customer service skills. Would you be willing to spend some time in customer service so you can be a more well-rounded candidate when a position comes open?"

I am trying to improve my posts on soft skills, so please give me any suggestions you might have in the comment section. Just be sure to begin with praise!

Photo by Ricardo Camacho under Creative Commons license.

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