A Spoonful of Sugar

A Spoonful of SugarRaise your hand if you have ever started off a conversation to offer difficult feedback by giving a compliment.  I can literally hear the rustle of thousands of hands being raised.  We’ve all done it.  No one wants to see pain inflicted on another human being.  We put ourselves in their shoes, and feel the agony of knowing we didn’t live up to a standard.

But on the other hand, we don’t put ourselves in their shoes completely.  Let’s try on your shoes for a moment.  You might not want to hear how you’d disappointed someone, but what other things might be in your head when someone approaches you with a suspiciously nervous start to a conversation?

  • There’s a decent chance you already know you’ve disappointed someone and are waiting for this conversation.
  • You’d rather have it in the open than wondering what they’re really thinking.
  • You want whatever is coming to be short, direct, and clear so you can really understand it and address it.

We’ve all heard lots of advice about difficult conversations and the admonition to not sugar-coat them, and if you really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you understand why.

But let’s look at a different way to use that spoonful of sugar – in the same conversation.

The other thing you know, if you put yourself in someone’s shoes, is that the most difficult thing in many of these conversations is that you recognize you have to change something.  Often the conversation is not about one event, but about a habit you need to break, or a different muscle you need to use.  And what makes the conversation so difficult for you is that you doubt your own ability to ever make the change – to live up to the standard you know is there.

One man I coached (let’s call him Ted), when offered 360-degree feedback about his style of interacting with people, burst out with an agonized howl, “I know I upset people with my style.  I’ve been told this for years!  Even my wife tells me the same thing.  But I have no earthly idea how to really change what I do!”

So here’s where the spoonful of sugar comes in handy.  I asked Ted what was the most difficult change he’d ever had to make in his life.  When he described the change, I asked him what he had done to be able to get over the hurdles and make the change.  He was able to answer that well.  “Ted,” I said, “congratulations on making that very tough change!  I hope you’re proud of it.  And wow – you had a very coherent process for making that change.  Do you think any of those lessons might help you here?”

Instead of giving Ted a compliment on some miscellaneous good work he did, directing the sugar to his ability to solve the problem at hand made good use of the sweet stuff.

In difficult conversations, here are some spoonfuls of sugar that really do advance the cause:

  • Acknowledging and complimenting insightful self-awareness.
  • Observing how someone has effectively done something before and expressing confidence they can do it again.
  • Complimenting the person on a clear and well-directed plan to make needed changes.

Remember that in difficult conversations, you have two goals:

  • To give clear understanding of what is expected and not being delivered.
  • To identify and encourage a plan to change.

The sugar should be kept out of the first part of the conversation, but it can make a big difference in the encouragement objective in the second part of the conversation.  It is also a big help when you see the person making progress.  That’s the ideal time to dole out those sugar cubes, building confidence in them that they are on the right track and actually making progress.

So while we might take issue with Mary Poppins about using the sugar to ‘make the medicine go down’, it’s a good strategy to hold it in reserve to help advance the cure.


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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