Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt

Guest post from Deb Bright:
Here it is the end of the year. You are feeling pretty good about how things are going in general but you have trepidations about giving some people their annual review. As you probably appreciate, you are not alone. In fact your boss likely feels the same way about giving you your annual review. For everyone knows and expects that at least some negatives will come up during their review session. Only the masochists among us look forward to being put on the carpet for things they have done wrong over the year! 

Let’s face it, just about everyone hates criticism – it’s the least sought after form of human communication.  But, criticism doesn’t have to be all that bad. As a matter of fact, current research on the subject shows that the more one learns about how to give and receive criticism, the more they come to discover that it can open doors to the achievement of personal goals and successes never dreamed possible.  By understanding a few skills involving criticism, whether as a giver or receiver, it can become a significant asset towards your personal success as a leader or manager. Once you learn some tenets on how to give it so others actually welcome it, or how to accept it as a form of self-advancement, you will know more than just about anyone you come in contact with. You might even come to consider it a kind of personal competitive edge.

The discomfort associated with criticism is understandable.  Besides conveying something negative, the stress associated with criticism is heightened when givers are not prepared and deliver a poorly constructed message highly subject to misinterpretation and challenge.  For receivers, they too often are stressed because they aren't sure whether the intent of the criticism is to help, hurt, rattle their self-confidence, or set them up for a fall.

The source of our discomfort with it can be traced to the fact that mostly all of us never developed the skills necessary to ensure that the criticism we give is received as intended. As receivers we lack the skills of looking for what is potentially helpful rather than what is argumentative.  

Because we lack the necessary skills, mistakes in handling criticism are plentiful for both givers and receivers. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that givers make is that they “call it as they see it.”  These are what I refer to as “Quick Draw" givers because their approach is based on an emotional reaction with little thought given to the consequences of their delivery. Consequently, they tend to alienate more than they motivate.  They overlook the fact that once they open their mouth, the control shifts to the receiver who decides how to interpret what's been said and likely takes a defensive position that is of benefit to neither party.

So to avoid being a Quick Draw giver, it's important to recognize that your control lies in proper preparation.  This involves considering such things as how to express the criticism (tone of voice), when (timing), where (privately is best), and by whom (in bounds of your relationship). What's required is always making these preparatory considerations a matter of habit aka - “thinking before you speak.”

Feeling uncomfortable when giving criticism is natural.  It's what you do with that uncomfortable feeling that can result in yet another common mistake.  With or without your awareness you may try to regain that sense of comfort by taking to the limits such biblical platitudes as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “treat others the way you want to be treated.” What this implies is that you give criticism to others the way you would like to receive it.  So, you adopt an “All About Me” approach when delivering criticism.  This “All About Me” approach to giving criticism has the wrong focus.

Your goal is not to be comfortable when giving criticism; rather, the goal is to be effective.  You need to step outside yourself and factor in what you understand to be the receiver's preferences and needs.  When you do this, you are putting aside the “All About Me” approach and practicing a more appropriate adage that says, “treat others the way they want or need to be treated.”  This mindset is what you need to adopt in order to have your message heard.  There should never be any guessing about how best to approach someone you work closely with or – all the more so – someone who is significant in your life!

Receivers need to make givers feel comfortable during the criticism exchange. What many receivers all too often overlook is the fact that most givers don’t like giving criticism and they have likely never been trained in properly giving criticism.  Instead of trying to work with givers, the “I’m Being Attacked” receivers instantly become defensive, fire off questions, and become argumentative. These receivers fail to see that making givers uncomfortable is likely to eliminate what could be an important opportunity in their development and, over time, givers will shut down and put the need to say something to them at the bottom of their to-do list. 

There are two main things that receivers can do to make givers feel comfortable. First, the receiver should avoid interrupting the giver immediately and let them finish what they have to say. Secondly, the receiver really needs to listen carefully to what the giver is saying or trying to say. When the criticism is being delivered, receivers need to keep in mind that most givers have not been educated in giving criticism and can easily come across awkwardly and be careless about what is said. Rather than immediately taking a defensive stance, receivers need to ask questions with the intent of trying to understand whether the giver is really trying to be helpful and whether there is any potential value in what the giver is saying. 

Working on these tips and sharing them with those in your workplace is a great start toward making sure that messages come across as intended and that receivers find benefit in what’s said.

Deb Bright, Ed.D., is the author of The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt (AMACOM; Sept 2014). She is also founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations. Follow her blog at

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