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:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- A Critique of Criticism: I
- Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience
pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to
increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
- Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review
of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
- 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.
- Toxic Conflict at Work
- Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent
toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.