How to Give (and Receive) Positive Criticism
There is nothing pleasant about criticism. Even the best intentioned critique still stings. People like to be right, correct, and accomplished, and when they're not, it hurts to hear the truth, no matter how nice your critic tries to be. Still, those who strive to improve, value direct feedback no matter how painful. And as long as the critic is not being malicious, he or she can actually build a higher level of trust by providing constructive criticism carefully and empathetically.
So whether you are reviewing an employee, family member or friend, here are five tips for giving criticism in a way it will be appreciated and well received. I also put notes to the receiver as to how you can make the most of the critique.
1. Have Clear Objectives
Ask yourself what is the best possible outcome of this critique. If you are simply venting with no intention, you won't likely achieve anything but rancor and resentment. Perhaps you are only prolonging an eventual termination in which case why waste energy and emotion while putting off the inevitable.
On the other hand, if you find yourself the target of an attack, see if you can diffuse the situation by asking your critics what they hope to accomplish. In the best case, you may get an understanding of the real issue. In the worst case, you'll know it's time to make a graceful exit willingly.
2. Create a Neutral Environment
Consider the time and place for your critique. It usually helps not to critique in front of a crowd, which generally leads to humiliation. Human Resource policies may require a third party, but better to make sure that person is fairly neutral so no one feels ganged upon. The best way to neutralize the tension is with appropriate humor. You can build rapport and take down defenses by sharing your own personal experience of silly mistakes you have made in your career. This helps the subject relate to your humanity before addressing his or her own inadequacies.
If you're the one in the hot seat and you feel threatened or embarrassed by your environment when being critiqued, speak up. Ask to move to a private area or to set up an appointment in the near future. Prepare yourself for the information you will receive. Be attentive with open body language so your critic relaxes as well.
3. Use Fewer Words With More Meaning
Your subject has a strong inner voice during a critique and is likely anxious, so keep your critique brief and to the point. The more you say, the more likely you will distract from the key points and make them hard to remember. Plan your conversation in advance and in writing so the subject can walk away with clear direction on how to improve.
When you're on the receiving end, let your critic speak their mind. If you debate on the spot, you'll appear closed and defensive. Better to agree to consider the feedback in the moment. Then you can revisit the conversation with careful thought and perhaps a little critique of your own if warranted. You'll be taken more seriously when your response is thoroughly contemplated and well articulated.
4. Align the Criticism With the Subject's Goals
A self-serving critique falls upon deaf ears. Know your subjects well enough to explain how your suggestions will help them achieve their desired objectives. If they are invested in the outcome, they'll likely be more open to suggestion, regardless of how they feel about you or other people involved. For example, if their goal is to be an amazing boss, then dealing with other people's objections becomes integral to their success. Provide the context for advancement and the critique will be welcomed.
When you're the one being critiqued try stepping outside yourself. Listen objectively to what's being said. If you are clear on your goals, you'll be able to better identify and filter the good advice from the unwarranted ranting of lunatics.
5. Encourage Self-Critique
Instead of simply laying out a list of offenses, describe scenarios from an objective viewpoint and ask key questions so your subject can draw their own conclusions about their weaknesses. Lead them with questions to understand from a management perspective why a different behavior is more suitable. When making statements, stay away from direct attacks. Use "I" language and speak from your own experience.
Everyone should do their own self-assessment regularly. Try and anticipate the key points of any critique before it happens. If you are able to start the conversation by listing your own failures and suggesting remedies at the outset, you'll disarm your critics and likely impress them as well. Then the whole experience will feel like a win-win for you both.
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