No offence but… 3 rules of thumb for constructive communication

It never ceases to amaze me how two people who speak the same language can have such trouble understanding each other. I often seem to witness this and find myself translating from one language to the same language. The problem is that people don’t always come across as they intend and the other person doesn’t always hear what’s really being said. It’s a recipe for misunderstanding.

Sometimes we need to raise difficult issues with others, but how do we do this without offending the other person? How can we enable a constructive dialogue? Here are three things that are good to remember:

  1. You’ve probably already learned about sandwiching constructive criticism. This is something that is taught in schools, workplaces, leadership training programs and a number of other places. What you do is sandwich your criticism between positive feedback. By doing so you start by making the other person feel good about him or herself, you then talk about what could be improved, and finally you end with something good, reminding the person that they are appreciated and good at whatever it is they are doing. It’s effective and it’s also just a nice way of going about it.

This is pretty basic, however there are also a couple of other things that are good to remember but that people don’t usually think of:

  1. Pointing fingers really doesn’t help. If somebody’s behavior is irritating or just not desired, you won’t get them to change their behavior by starting your sentence with things like “You always…” or “Why do you always have to…” This feels like an attack and it will most likely end the conversation before it even started. A better strategy is to turn it around and start with yourself. Explain how the behavior makes you feel. For example, try starting your sentence with “I feel uncomfortable when you…”or “”It hurts my feelings when…” or “I get confused if…” or, more for something more work related, “Our business partners don’t understand when…” Talking about your own experience instead of issuing blame is a much better strategy and might even lead to a discussion and a solution to the problem.


  1. And finally, one of of my pet peeves. I get frustrated when people say things like “No offense, but…” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or like what I recently heard, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” It’s amazing how often I hear this and it is a completely disastrous way to start a sentence. When you start with “No offense, but” it makes absolutely no difference what you say after that because offence will already have been taken. When hearing that, what a person really hears is “WARNING! WARNING! What I am about to say is actually going to be very offensive and hurtful and probably also an attack, but I’m trying to be nice about it and I don’t want you to react negatively.” You see the problem here? And ironically, most of the time what follows really isn’t that offensive at all but it comes across as such just by the way it is presented. So if you, for example, don’t love the music that your friend is playing, don’t say “No offense, but this isn’t my favorite music”. Try instead to just say “You know, this isn’t my favorite type of music”. It sounds much less offensive. Because you’re not insulting your friend’s taste in music, your just having a conversation about what kind of music you do and don’t normally listen to. Or instead of saying, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but could it have been a misunderstanding?” try just saying, “Could it have been a misunderstanding?” Trust me, much less offensive.

So this is something for you to think about and to try. Let’s all do each other a favor and offend each other less so we can start communicating more effectively.

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