The best criticism doesn’t trap an employee or child in a dead end. It gives them an escape route.
When Mimi Sheraton was the respected and feared restaurant critic of The New York Times, she had the unfortunate habit of disliking many of her boss’s favourite restaurants. This put her esteemed and intimidating boss, executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, in an awkward position.
On the one hand, Sheraton was entitled to her views and it was important that she be perceived as unbiased and beyond arm-twisting by anyone. On the other hand, the socially minded Rosenthal still had to show his face at some of the targets of Sheraton’s vigorous prose.
Rosenthal’s solution was clever and speaks volumes about how to deliver fair criticism. He didn’t muzzle Sheraton. He couldn’t have done so and still kept her as a critic. Instead, he convinced her that if she was going to lambast an establishment, she could score more points if she felt sorry about doing it.
“Instead of writing, “The place is terrible,” Rosenthal suggested, “You could say, ‘It’s too bad the place is terrible,’” Even the severest criticism often will be acceptable if you appear sympathetic.