In Part I of this exploration of criticism, we explored guidelines for criticism that arise from considering the needs and responses of giver and receiver. In this Part II, we explore the content of criticism messages, and the settings in which we deliver those messages.
- Style is part of content
- For criticism, delivery style is part of content, because we experience style as part of the message — and that's often the intention of the giver. Word choice, voice tone, gestures, and posture all contribute to style. A hostile, attacking style invites rejection of the message and possible retaliation.
- Choose a style that's respectful, humble, and kind. Instead of coercing the receiver, invite the receiver to engage in joint exploration.
- Focus on actions or beliefs
- When the content of the criticism includes an evaluation of the receiver as a person, rather than the receiver's actions or beliefs, the receiver can experience pain. Receivers cannot change who they are; they can only change beliefs or make different choices in the future. Criticizing someone as a person invites retaliation and degrades relationships.
- Strive for clarity about the consequences of actions and beliefs. Focus on mutual understanding of those consequences. Once consequences are clear, the receiver can make better-informed choices in the future.
- Understand the root cause
- If the cause of the problem lies outside the realm of individual choice, criticizing the choices of individuals won't help. Very little good comes of offering criticism of actions or beliefs to someone who was operating well within organizational norms.
- Be certain that you understand the root cause of the problem. If what you have to say applies to many people, consider the possibility that the system is the cause, rather than the people in it. Consider individual interventions only after you eliminate systemic causes.
- Seek a private setting
- Public If the message for the receiver
could apply equally to others
as well, the receiver can
feel persecuted and
unfairly attackedcriticism can humiliate receivers. Humiliation limits the receiver's ability to calmly consider the message, which is a prerequisite for change. Whether humiliation is a goal or a tactic, rethink the entire endeavor.
- Privacy is essential. If privacy is rare in the ordinary course of events, do something extraordinary to obtain privacy.
- Be equitable
- If the message for the receiver could apply equally to others as well, the receiver can feel persecuted and unfairly attacked. Focusing on just one individual, even to provide an example to others, rarely works.
- People are free to talk with each other. If two people carry out similar actions, and you're reluctant to offer criticism to one, consider carefully before offering it to the other.
Criticizing is itself an action. If criticizing degrades the relationship between giver and receiver, or degrades other relationships, or propagates dissension with little benefit of any kind, its value is questionable — and open to criticism. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Changing the Subject: II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or
assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- The Advantages of Political Attack: I
- In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when
the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond
- How to Avoid Responsibility
- Taking responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable are the hallmarks of either a rising
star in a high-performance organization, or a naïve fool in a low-performance organization. Either
way, you must know the more popular techniques for avoiding responsibility.
- OODA at Work
- OODA is a model of decision making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as
combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
- First Aid for Wounded Conversations
- Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to
forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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