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The 4-1-1 On Constructive Criticism

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Being critical is easy, and offering criticism seems easier still. Yet constructive criticism - - the more refined and effective brand of critical feedback - - is like an art when compared to nagging, nit-picking and negativity. Nothing makes most people bristle more quickly than unfair, unskillful, or unsolicited criticism. Yet there are times when offering constructively critical feedback is essential to maintaining excellence and strong relationships.

The best way to skillfully offer constructive criticism depends heavily on the nature of the relationships and personalities in any given situation, so this article will offer a few pointers rather than an exhaustive primer on the subject. Yet a few tips on how to be more skillful - - if implemented mindfully - - can make an enormous difference. Some tips include:

Realize that relationships matter. Is a husband criticizing a wife, an employer criticizing an employee, a supervisor criticizing a direct report, a project leader criticizing a team member, or a colleague criticizing a peer? Some approaches for offering constructive criticism can be applied in all cases, and in all cases success depends on the agreements that are in place - - and understood by both parties. For example, an employer providing a critique of an employee' s performance rests on a foundation of the agreements made at the start of the employment relationship about the employee' s role and the employer' s expectations. A colleague criticizing a coworker can require a more delicate approach, because the same assumptions regarding authority are not in place. Also, remember that one of the most important priorities is to maintain a positive, respectful relationship with the person once the discussion has drawn to a close!

Review assumptions. Most people automatically assume that they' re right and everyone else is wrong, and it' s their mission in life to correct others! From the other side of the discussion, though, it seems a lot more like unproductive, demotivating criticism. One great thing to do before you lob criticism at someone else is to review where you might be making assumptions about the relationship, expectations or how the person is approaching a project or situation. For example, if you' re about to criticize someone for "never listening," your assumptions might include your perception that you' ve been clear in your communication or seeing expectations from the same place. In fact, neither may be true. Scouting potential assumptions can help set the foundation for a more positive discussion or feedback-sharing session.

Relax and center before meeting. If we're anxious about providing critical feedback, or feeling frustrated or resentful about another person's behavior or performance, we might be tempted to head into a feedback-sharing discussion in a state of stress. The better choice is, after reviewing tips like these to put the discussion in proper perspective, is to take a few minutes to relax, breathe slowly and deeply, remember our highest intentions for the meeting and for sharing our feedback. Whether you say a prayer or borrow a few relaxation or mindset management tips from your favorite athlete or self-help book, making an effort to relax and center will make a positive difference in the tone of your meeting, and you'll be more likely to be skillful rather than reactionary in your discussion.

Share intentions. Before offering criticism, check your own intentions for wanting to let someone else know what they' ve done wrong or what could be refined in their behavior or performance. This provides a good litmus test for whether the issue under critique is really a matter of preference, work style or worse, your own problem. Then preface your criticism by sharing your intentions. For example, you might say, "My intention for wanting to talk with you is that I want our group' s work to be excellent, and something we can all be proud of" or "My intention for needing to say this is that I' m feeling very frustrated that I might be getting taken advantage of here, and it' s important for me that we maintain a positive working relationship."

Clarify expectations. Murky or unvoiced expectations create problems when it' s time to provide feedback, including constructive criticism, of someone else' s behavior or performance. In addition to sharing your intentions for the discussion, you might want to share your perspective on how you understand any working agreements or your own expectations for the situation or the other person' s performance or behavior. Doing so might sound something like, "My understanding of the project is that you were going to be handling meeting logistics by Friday afternoon and forward that information to me."

Ask questions (and listen to the responses). Another great way to collect information that will help you to unveil unclear expectations, misperceptions or lack of clarity is to ask questions. The opposite, of course, is just doing all of the talking (which comes perilously close to assuming that you' re correct in your perception of the situation!). Before providing constructive feedback, it would be great to ask questions and learn more about how the other person understood his role and assignments, how they understand any agreements, what they thought you or others expected of him, and how he felt about his performance on those contributions to date. Often, as you listen to someone' s responses to questions, you have at least one "Aha!" moment that enriches your own understanding, which then allows you to provide much more constructive feedback.

Speak respectfully. Think about it: Nothing seems worse than being yelled out, scolded, or just "talked at." And all of those seem even less constructive if you feel that what' s coming at you is biased, inaccurate or unfair, and that you' ve not been offered a chance to share your perspective on the matter (and felt like someone actually listened!). In any discussion, and particularly one where you' ll be offering criticism, it' s important to listen, to ask questions, to ensure that you' ve made clear that what you' re sharing is your perspective rather than a judgment or indictment of the other person. It' s much nicer to participate in an information-sharing dialogue - - where both people get to speak and listen - - than it is to feel like your before the Inquisition!

See the positive as well as the negative. Studies show that many people feel criticized, bullied or ostracized more than appreciated at work, and a fair percentage of people leave their place of employment because of such interpersonal problems with supervisors or colleagues. One great practice is to, before your meeting where you' ll be providing feedback to coworkers (including managers or persons you supervise), is to make a list of things that you really appreciate about the individual with whom you' ll be sharing feedback. Remember - - positive attributes only, and include at least five on your list. Then, once you' ve shared your intentions about the meeting, share the "what I really appreciate about you and your work" list before moving on to constructive criticism. You can also wrap the meeting with a recap of positive thoughts.

These are just a few of the things to consider before providing critical feedback to another person, and the tips can be "flipped" if you' re the one receiving critical feedback!

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully. The most effective leadership, interpersonal and organizational communication plans are those that have been tailored to meet your unique needs and organizational culture, so don't hesitate to contact us or get assistance from a qualified adviser.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA.

Copyright © 1997-2001 IvySea Online Communication, San Francisco. All rights reserved. Limited duplication or distribution allowed with prior permission from and credit to IvySea Online Communication.

Last updated: Aug 3, 2001




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