In the last post, I discussed how Canadians tend to collaborate in the workplace and work together in teams. This post continues on the same theme of appropriate workplace communication as it relates to giving feedback and making requests.

Just as our concept of teamwork varies from culture to culture, so does how we offer advice and recommendations, make requests and give feedback in general. If we look around the world, we can see that some cultures are very direct and blunt (as Canadians would define it.) Others are indirect and soft in their feedback, which for Canadians, may be unclear. In Canada, we like to be clear so we try to be direct but we tend to approach giving criticism and making requests in a gentle manner, at least at the beginning. I call this method “softening.”

For example, if someone says; “This is terrible. Do it again,” a Canadian-born person may become sensitive and feel insulted. On the other hand, if we rephrase it by saying; “I can see you’ve done a lot of work but I think you could still improve this quite a bit,” it will be better accepted.

The problem here is how what we say gets interpreted. Whether you interpret the second statement as generally positive or clearly as a criticism depends upon your cultural framework. For some cultures, the first statement is clear and acceptable and, consequently, they might view the second statement as rather positive. For most Canadians, the second statement makes it is clear that the work needs to be improved and that it is not acceptable at all as is. Learning to interpret the tone and meaning of a statement takes time. But there are some techniques which I can share with you. Here are the most common:

The Sandwich Technique:

Imagine that the bread represents positive comments and the filling represents the negative feedback. If my concern is that you are arriving late often, the direct information could be stated in this manner: “Frank, you must come on time from now on or you’ll be let go.”

This is direct and clear but, in Canada, if this is the only concern and it hasn’t been mentioned previously, we might approach it in this manner:

Frank, you’re doing a really great job in all areas related to your job responsibilities. There is one thing, THOUGH, which is of concern and that is your lack of punctuality. This is a serious issue so please make sure it doesn’t continue to happen. In general, other than this, we are happy with your performance and are very pleased to have you with us.”

Look at the structure. The first sentence is a positive statement. The next two outline the concern. The last sentence ends on a positive note. Notice the capitalized word, THOUGH, which indicates something contrasting is coming. We might also use BUT, NEVERTHELESS, UNFORTUNATELY, etc. and so it is important to listen for these types of words.

Other Softening Techniques:

Softening vocabulary – We tend to use vocabulary which softens our statement. For example, I GUESS, I THINK, A BIT, JUST, REALLY, etc. It takes some practice to keep the meaning but the main idea is to soften the negativity or, in the case of a request, to sound less demanding. For example, instead of “I don’t want to stay because I’m tired,” we could say: “I’m getting a bit tired so I think I should be leaving soon.”

Suggestions & questions – Changing a statement into a suggestion or a question helps to soften it. For example, “Lend me your stapler,” could be restated as: “Do you mind if I borrow your stapler for a minute?

Refocusing – Stating something from a positive or more neutral perspective sounds more polite to us. For example, “This is bad,” could become: “This could be better.” And “I can’t stay late tonight,” can be said more neutrally: “Unfortunately, I’m not able to stay late tonight.”

In reality we use a combination of these techniques, as you can see from the examples above. The important thing here, though, is to not lose the message. Many people try to soften to such a degree that their message is no longer understandable. Observe how people soften in Canada and remember: people are often rude and blunt, even in Canada (and I’m sure you have observed this.) Nevertheless, offering feedback and making requests in this manner is always acceptable in the Canadian workplace and considered the correct way to speak. If you can learn this technique, no one will be offended and you will be considered both polite and professional.