Sweet talk and grains of truth.

Kudos to the customer service rep at the Mini-Wheats hotline; she not only apologized and gave me free stuff, she schooled me on the whole Mini-Wheats production process. See, sometimes the frosting spray nozzle gets clogged, and thus doesn’t coat the cereal properly. (Using the product ID number, the rep was able to identify the manufacturing plant and make them aware of their problematic nozzle…can I count my intervention as a good deed?)

A colleague of mine strongly believes that conflict avoiders are disproportionately drawn to the mediation field, and therefore we have a hard time giving feedback without lots of sugarcoating.  We crank up our frosting nozzles to 11, in our effort to spare people’s feelings.  Alas, our great intentions can result in confusion and mixed messages. Constructive criticism is often buried beneath saccharine flattery, and thus is not likely to be heard. (Of course, the opposite — accusatory, insulting, negative feedback — is no good either.  So it’s all about finding the, er, sweet spot.)

This can be further muddled by cultural context.  In high context cultures — such as the Middle East — language is often infused with ceremonial, deferential terms of respect — even within a highly difficult conversation.  In contrast, in low context — e.g. North American —  cultures, we can be painfully direct.  So, we need to be aware of cultural sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) when giving and receiving feedback.

A standard feedback model is:  1) start with something sincerely positive,  2) be specific — avoiding the words “always” and “never,”   3) listen to the recipient’s response  4) summarize, repeat, or reflect that response, to show you understand,  5) brainstorm on a way to move forward.  To this, I’d add and emphasize:  go easy on the sugarcoating (particularly in step 1).  Shoehorning in lots of throwaway compliments can come off as insincere and may confuse the listener.

More later.  Count Chocula beckons.

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