Deb Bright on Giving and Receiving Criticism Effectively: Part 1

Photo of Deb Bright, author of The Truth Doesn't Have to HurtThe following is Part One of a guest post from Deb Bright, author of The Truth Doesn’t Have to Hurt: How to Use Criticism to Strengthen Relationships, Improve Performance and Promote Change, sharing key things to remember when giving criticism, or being on the receiving end.

Why do people need to know anything about the criticism exchange? I always regarded it as something awful that should be avoided at all costs!

You are not alone. Just about everyone hates criticism and views it as the least sought after form of human communication. But, the fact is that the more you learn about how to give and take criticism, the more you will discover that it can open doors to successes you never dreamed were possible. Understanding criticism, whether as a giver or receiver, can become a significant asset toward your personal success as a manager or an employee in just about any field or organization. Once you learn how to give it so that 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.

Criticism, no matter how well it is given or taken, has, at its core, a gem of honesty that can shape our most accurate perception of ourselves and others more than any other source of information we can have at our disposal. It is a learning tool through which we can change the behavior of others and ourselves. Not to take anything away from the advantages of praise, which is a great way to get people to continue doing what they might be doing right, criticism, when delivered properly, can actually increase trust, respect, and the quality of our fundamental relationships with everyone with whom we deal. Criticism, when delivered well, can make change for the good happen not just between individuals but across organizations big and small.

The key thing about criticism is that it is mostly always taken seriously by us and others.

Why? Because we all know that criticism is hard to give, while praise is not always taken seriously since it is easy to give – but rarely results in change. If we want to know if someone really doesn’t like us, wait for them to criticize. Chances are their criticism will be simply meant to hurt us – and that’s called “bashing”. On the other hand, we usually recognize criticism that is really meant to help us such as the golf pro trying to fix our swing, or the music teacher who winces when we hit the wrong key. Those that use criticism to help are the ones we need to pay attention to. We can simply dismiss criticism from those who simply mean to demean. We trust and respect people whose intention it is to help us … those are the ones we learn from and whose words we cherish the most. Even when they criticize us, we know their intention is meant to be helpful and, more likely than not, we accept what they say. Learning how to discern quality criticism from any other kind is not hard. It is just a matter of recognizing what is meant to be helpful rather than hurtful. Once we know that, we are on our way to growing into our ambitions and helping others do the same.

What are some important things to remember about giving criticism?

If you think about it, criticism is inevitable in just about any relationship, especially those between bosses and their staffs, or between team members. After all, human beings aren’t perfect. So, why guess how best to approach one another? We need to find out how best to deliver a message so the person doesn’t take it the wrong way. Ask those that you engage with how, when it becomes necessary, they prefer to be given criticism as long as it is meant to be helpful. They will tell you! Some like it up front. Some like it soft. Some like it at the end of the day. While others will say “give it to me on the spot”. It is a great way to establish an expectation of honesty and trust and most people will appreciate your sensitivity to the issue as it regards them.

This follows along with another all too common mistake where givers adopt what’s often referred to in the workplace as the “sandwich approach” or the “Oreo cookie approach.” This is the oft-used technique where the giver of criticism first delivers a positive then delivers the negative followed by delivering another positive. Few are fooled by this. What we found in our research is that when you start positive, move negative, and end positive, what often happens is that the receiver doesn’t hear the criticism because they’re sitting there glorifying in the positive. After using this approach a few times with the same receiver, the receiver becomes savvy to the approach and distrusts the praise message well knowing that the magical axe of the “but” will fall with the more honest negative to follow. What really concerns me about using this technique without thinking about it is that what we’re saying is that human Jacket image, The Truth Doesn't Have to Hurt, by Deb Brightbeings are like robots and all you need to do is start positive, move negative, and end positive.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, with advice on receiving criticism, including whether to accept or reject it.

Deb Bright, Ph.D. is founder and president of Bright Enterprises, Inc., a consulting firm devoted to enhancing performance. Her impressive roster of clients includes Raytheon, Marriott, Disney, GE, Chase, Morgan Stanley, and other premier organizations.

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