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:
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- When we seek those accountable for a particular failure, we risk blaming them instead, because many
of us confuse accountability with blame. What's the difference between them? How can we keep blame at bay?
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- 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.
- What Do You Need?
- When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do
you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
- New Ideas: Judging
- When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They
sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge
new ideas more effectively?
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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.