Credible vs. Crushing Criticism: How To Pull It Off
The way we criticize others' behaviors, decisions, and ideas impacts them either positively or negatively, and it tells a lot about us. Most of us don't do it well. Most of us botch it more often than we'd like to admit. In fact, we dread it and try to avoid it, even when it absolutely must take place for the good of an individual and/or an entire organization.
Frequently, we make a mess out of criticism. Why? Perhaps nobody ever taught us how to handle it. Perhaps we've been on the receiving end of criticism delivered with cruelty or at least minimal tact. We could probably cite many examples of being shredded as the result of somebody's need to offer us what they called "constructive criticism." Between lack of acquired skill and a lifetime of poor role modeling we may feel inept in the criticism department. But we don't have to stay stuck in the quicksand. We actually can learn the ingredients that lead to good, even great outcomes. Here are six essentials:
Clear communication of whatever needs to be criticized:
You must be clear within yourself about what needs to be criticized before you can possibly communicate it to the other person. One way to get that clarity is to focus on actual behaviors, verbalized choices, and/or stated ideas. Avoid the fog associated with your feelings. Criticizing someone based on feelings typically doesn't yield positive results. Acknowledge your feelings privately first, then deliberately move to the facts. Talk specifically to the person about what he/she said or did and how it is impacting you, the company, and/or others. Be sure to express your concerns directly, in a way the person can understand. Don't talk in meaningless circles that dodge the issue.
When in the process of providing criticism to an employee, peer, or stakeholder, steer clear of showing strong emotions. Yelling in anger or crying in frustration is totally unacceptable and shows the other individual that you are out of control. Stay calm. Appear stable. It is okay to tell the person in a reasonable tone of voice that you are angry because he/she went over your head to discuss a certain problem. It is okay to let the person know you find his/her constant laughing during meetings highly annoying. Sharing your personal emotional responses is fine as long as you do it with a level head. It is never all right to use emotion as power over someone else.
Input from the other person:
Begin the conversation by stating your criticism and the reasons for needing to bring the issue to the person's attention. Then give that individual an opportunity to talk. Invite him/her to explain the situation or behavior as well as additional details related to it. Resist the temptation to interrupt. Avoid arguing against what you hear. Consciously choose to wait until the person finishes his/her side of the story. This takes considerable discipline on your part. Why is it necessary? You could end up learning some fact, some tidbit, some nuance you didn't know previously that alters your perception of things. At least be open to the possibility. When criticizing somebody's actions, it's important to grasp the whole picture before making a final judgment.
Careful choice of language:
Your choice of words during this delicate conversation matters a great deal. How you frame your viewpoint matters too. Stating or implying that the employee is a bad person is inappropriate. Any sort of demeaning language merely belittles you in the other's eyes. Use "I" statements to start many of your sentences. Say something like: "I am frustrated because you apparently lied to Tom about the status of the project." Avoid starting sentences with "you", because immediately this puts the other person on the defensive and the conversation will deteriorate quickly. Through careful word selection and proper framing of your message you can keep the dialogue open. You'll accomplish a lot more in the long run by doing so.
Preservation of all parties' dignity:
This can be done by first acknowledging the positive contributions the other person makes to the company before you launch into the criticism. You may say something to the effect of: "I have valued your attention to detail and your willingness to function as a team player over the five years you've worked here. These have added much value. It's unfortunate that today I need to question your judgment about the way you handled the sticky situation with Susan last week." This approach allows the other individual to hear all of what you have to say, and it demonstrates to him/her that you are fair-minded and not just hyper-critical. There are times when a supervisor has to confront even the best of staffers about something. Shredding outstanding employees in the heat of the moment—or any employees—only works against you. By attempting to preserve the person's dignity you also preserve your own.
Action steps to move forward:
After you have expressed your criticism and your reasons for doing so and after you have listened to the other person's point of view, you need to take the conversation to the next level. It's not enough to stop after each party has shared. You must do something with the information that is now out on the table. Be clear in your own head about what you want to see happen next, but you may want to ask the other person what he/she thinks should happen before you show your hand. Solicit his/her ideas about how to remedy the situation, solve the problem that exists, repair the damaged relationship, restore your confidence in his/her behavior. If you can live with what you hear, consider accepting it as the mini action plan. Don't insist on your own unless what the other person puts out there is completely outrageous and simply not possible. Why? Getting employee buy-in ultimately creates the bigger win for everyone.
Sylvia Hepler, Owner and President of Launching Lives, is an executive and career coach/advisor based in South Central Pennsylvania. Her mission is to support executives as they get unstuck, reduce unnecessary suffering, and increase balance in their lives. Ms. Hepler demonstrates keen insights into human behaviors, exceptional ability to prioritize projects and tasks, and bulls eye skill around matching appropriate communication strategies with particular situations. Her deep empathy coupled with a no-nonsense approach yields swift, noteworthy results with most coaching clients. Ms. Hepler has written a "Special Report" entitled, "FIVE FATAL FLAWS in EXECUTIVE THINKING", produced an audio CD on "making change", and launched a monthly tele seminar series called "Solutions By Sylvia."Sylvia@launchinglives.biz.
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