by Dr Barbara Tey

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”   ~ Abraham Lincoln

Woman pointing fingerThe day will come when even the nicest and most tolerant among us will criticize and be criticized. As a leader, manager, colleague, parent, teacher or friend, we need to learn how to not only give but also take criticism; otherwise, we risk ruining relationships, which in turn, upsets the working or living environment.

While criticism is not uncommon, there is something particularly delicate about this form of communication – or “corrective feedback” as it is labelled in some organizations – simply because it pinpoints people’s shortcomings, which may wound their ego or threaten their comfort zone. The problem is exacerbated because many of us are thin-skinned and bristle when criticism is levelled at us.

Even the strongest among us have some sort of personal reaction towards criticism. Although the criticism may be sincere, valid and constructive, we cannot help experiencing an immediate involuntary emotional reaction – thanks to our physiology – before our rational side takes over to normalize our emotions. Just like the injection your doctor gives you – it may be beneficial, but no one can deny feeling that first uncomfortable prick which punctures the skin.

Sometimes, we are taken aback by criticism (because we were unconscious of our blind spots), or we feel a little disappointed (“I didn’t do well enough!”) at our own inadequacies. And if we don’t have a close relationship with the criticizer, it is easy to feel resentful because we think the criticizer has no right to pass judgment on us, whether or not the criticism is justifiable.

Nevertheless, no one can play Mr/Ms Nice Person all the while – no matter how sparing we are with our criticism, there are occasions when we simply have no choice but to deliver it. Fortunately, there are specific positive approaches that experts recommend to minimize any hard or hurt feelings.

Request for specific future change
Psychologist Clifford N. Lazarus, PhD, advises us to frame criticism in the form of a request for a specific positive change in the future, as opposed to condescending statements that describe the current negative situation. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re such a laggard! Don’t you know how long you’ve kept us all waiting?” a far better way to put it would be, “In the future, please be punctual for meetings.”

Sandwich method
Just as a sandwich has three layers, this popular technique consists of three steps. First, praise is given; then the criticism or corrective feedback follows, concluding with more praise. For example, “John, you did very well with our customers last week. But this week the training session seemed a little less lively. I am confident that with a bit more interaction during the presentation, the customers will be so eager to participate.”

Unfortunately, many bosses use this technique so often that employees already expect the routine. Once the boss starts praising an employee, the latter will automatically anticipate the criticism that must surely follow.
To deter such unproductive conditioned thinking, bosses should show genuine appreciation to their employees at other times, too, and not just as a platform to deliver criticism. Criticism coming from a caring, appreciative boss is definitely more effective than criticism from one who praises with hidden motives.

“I-statements” versus “You-statements”
Spewing statements such as, “You always wait for others to do the job!” or “You never take the initiative to improve!” will only make the other person defensive and cause him or her to retaliate. When imparting criticism, statements that are filled with many “You’s” tend to be more accusatory in nature.

Instead, practise using more “I-statements” to skillfully deliver constructive criticism. For instance, we could say to a colleague who tends to keep to himself, “I am really at a disadvantage without my co-workers’ input. I would really appreciate it if you could share with me your views to help make this project a greater success.”

Concluding remarks
Leaders, the way you criticize tells others a lot about you. If you care for your people, you will respect them enough to protect their sensitivities while guiding them to become better, more confident employees.

Criticism requires both heart and art. When the heart is right, the art will follow naturally.

[Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici]