In an argument, the “straw man” tactic is used to set up a poor representation of your opponent’s opinion and attack that to undermine them. It’s a pretty crappy way to have an argument. If you’re trying to give constructive criticism, however, you can use it to help avoid hurt feelings.
Photo by Peter Pearson.
As business blog Entrepreneur points out, when someone is receiving criticism, they can end up feeling emotionally threatened or get defensive. Even if your advice means well (or you’re a boss that has to give that feedback), emotions can complicate an otherwise helpful discussion. Instead of directing the criticism at the person themselves, set up a straw man target:
If someone feels personally threatened by what you are saying, his or her defences will go up and he or she won’t be able to internalize your criticism. Try to give the critique through a personal anecdote or an inspiring story of someone famous who went through the same thing. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s not straight out about “you” and “your” mistakes.
As an example, say you have a friend who wants to start a side business, but doesn’t have a business plan. Rather than saying “You’re not going to get anywhere until you have a business plan in place,” you can relay that same information by saying “The most successful people I know who have started a side business had a business plan in place. Maybe you could start there?”
Also, keep in mind that this method is necessarily less confrontational. Using this tactic to avoid having a tough conversation where you need to be direct may not be the best idea. Try not to use it just to avoid having to say “Hey you were a jerk last night.” However, for light criticism that doesn’t need to be personal, it can be very useful.
5 Steps to Providing Constructive Criticism [Entrepreneur]