Do you know the feeling when you want criticize someone’s behaviour, but you’re scared of damaging your relationship with that person?
You’re right to be cautious: criticism is a double-edged sword. It can be immensely helpful, but also devastatingly hurtful.
In this post, I’d like to give you eight tips and ideas on how you can offer criticism as constructively as possible — and leave the other person not angry, but thankful for your support.
1. Be polite.
Sometimes, we criticize because we’re angry. In these situations, we often don’t feel like being polite. Even one single signal of impoliteness will greatly hamper our chances of the criticism being taken constructively.
I’m not only talking about rude words or insults here. We also need to avoid sending less obvious signals such as forgetting to knock on the door before entering or interrupting the other person in the wrong moment.
2. Be gentle and kind.
Let’s take this a step further. If we want the other party to really take our words to heart, then we must show that we are on their side.
One big step to achieving this is to be gentle and kind. Smile a lot. Talk soothingly. Employ friendly, relaxed body language.
Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done, especially when you’re nervous or angry. I’ve found it helpful to do sports right before I criticize. That way, I can let off steam first and enter the conversation in a calm and relaxed state.
3. Focus on actions.
When you make your case, focus on the actions you would like the other person to take or to stop taking. Never criticize the person herself.
Unfortunately, many people are very self-conscious in this regard, so they will think you are criticizing them as a person even if you’re actually only criticizing their behaviour.
To keep the risk of such misunderstandings to a minimum, it’s a good idea to emphasize the fact that you’re only criticizing actions with your choice of words.
Stay clear of the verb “to be” (as in: “you are too cautious”) and employ action-orientated verbs instead (“I think we need to take more risks here”).
4. Use the sandwich critique.
Another great way to help someone take criticism lightly is to place it right in the middle between two compliments. Here’s an example dialog:
“Hi Sandra, I loved how you handled that difficult customer yesterday!”
“Thanks! He really was a tough one …”
“Yeah well … you did great … by the way, I’ve been thinking about how we could increase our work efficiency even further, and I believe it would help if we both kept the office a littler tidier. Do you think we could try that?”
“Err…yes, sure. I guess I’ve made a bit of a mess here lately. Sorry about that.”
“No problem, I know you’ve had a lot on your plate. I really admire how you can be so stressed and still treat everyone with a smile.”
5. Frame your criticism as a suggestion.
In the above dialog, the criticizer also employs a second technique to bring her criticism across more constructively: She’s framing it as a suggestion. Instead of pointing out that Sandra has been untidy in the past, her colleague asks her to tidy up more in the future.
You should frame your criticism in this way whenever you can. If you feel that’s impossible or inappropriate, at least make sure to always add specific suggestions for improvement.
6. Criticize in private.
Even constructive criticism hurts a lot more when colleagues are listening. People get defensive easily if they’re afraid to lose face in front of a group. Make it your golden rule to always have a one-on-one talk when you want to criticize someone’s behaviour.
7. Criticize a fictional third party.
A sneaky trick is to make up a fictional person who has supposedly shown similar behaviour to the one you want to criticize.
For example, instead of applying the sandwich critique, Sandra’s colleague could make up a story about her roommate in college who was untidy and point out that this irritated her. Sandra might get the hint and make an effort to become tidier. If she doesn’t, her colleague can still move on to more direct criticism.
To avoid badmouthing third parties, I like to make people up when I use this method. But don’t overdo it — you don’t want to end up in a web of lies.
8. “I’ve made the same mistake.”
One of the most powerful techniques to help the other party take criticism easy is to mention that you’ve once made the same mistake.
I still remember an event when I was in high school and had asked my father to read one of my essays before I handed it in. The essay was on a topic I was deeply passionate about and I had put a lot of work into it.
My father read the essay, walked up to my room, sat down, and told me: “Lucas, you’ve mentioned a lot of very interesting things in this essay (sandwich critique!). But you’ve done something that I once did when I started out writing my dissertation. I had collected a lot of interesting facts, but I didn’t tell a coherent story around a central theme ….”
This wasn’t easy for me — after all it meant that I essentially had to start over — but my father was right and this was an issue I had to deal with.
I know that his “I’ve made the same mistake” method of criticizing my work has helped me a great deal to digest the bad news. Even today, I try to use the same technique as often as possible when I have to criticize someone.
A personal message
Since you’ve read this far, you obviously care a great deal about other people’s feelings. Don’t worry if you don’t always manage to criticize as nicely as you’d like to. I’ve sure made many mistakes when it comes to criticizing and still make them today.
But we’re improving with practice. You’re probably already a better criticizer than most people ever will be and you’re still putting in the effort to become even better. That’s awesome.
Please help us all in our quest for self-improvement by sharing your thoughts and ideas in the comments. What are your favourite ways of criticizing? Do you know any tricks that I haven’t mentioned? I’m looking forward to our conversation!
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