How do you criticize something without being a jerk?

Berating employees for incompetence seldom gets the desired results. See more pictures of emotions.
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At 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, I followed my husband onto the deck outside the back door of our home. I'd been at a conference all week while he'd been taxiing our three younger children to soccer and swim clubs, helping with homework, cooking dinner, doing housework and moving our college-age daughter's belongings to off-campus housing.

He pointed to the railing. About a year ago, one of our giant Akitas had bounced off the boards, knocking them loose. For months, it had bothered me. Like a dripping faucet. Or a ticking clock in a quiet house.

And now he had fixed it. I was, truly, thrilled. But as I leaned over the railing to take a closer look, I saw it wasn't really at a 90-degree angle at the point where the deck attached to the house.

"Oh," I said. "Does this look crooked to you?"

As soon as I uttered it, I wanted to hit the recall button. After all these months, here it was -- fixed -- and he'd managed to do it during a week that I know must have been overwhelming.

When it comes to criticizing something, and doing so without being a jerk, I'd just failed. Miserably. Fortunately, my husband ignored my snide comment and simply directed my attention to the gate latch he'd repaired, too.

Is there a better way, any way, to criticize? I once worked with an editor who was a master at using the "sandwich" method. She'd offer a compliment, level a criticism and then wrap up the conversation with another compliment. It was a cut-and-dried formula, but for her, quite effective. I was usually too busy soaking up the first compliment to think, "Here comes the bad news..." While this doesn't work for everyone -- it leads to some people forgetting the necessary criticism and others feeling the compliments are less than genuine -- it definitely worked for me.

Turns out, the success of a criticism lies in the delivery. Something those of use who dish it out, and those of who take it, have suspected for years. Now there's an emerging body of science to back it up. And, luckily, scores of really patient people -- like my husband -- who can handle poorly ladled comments in the meantime.