Deb Bright on Giving and Receiving Criticism Effectively: Part 2

Photo of Deb Bright, author of The Truth Doesn't Have to HurtThe following is Part Two 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.

Read Part One

What’s the most important thing for people to keep in mind when on the receiving end of criticism?

It is imperative to understand that in the criticism exchange the control always rests with the receiver. You read that right! It is always the receiver who is in control of a criticism once it is given. How to best utilize that control is the challenge.

So for starters, receivers need to be good listeners. They need to listen for good quality information versus poor quality information. They need to view criticism as information that could be of great importance to helping them handle a situation better or improve their personal effectiveness. When viewing criticism as information, it’s important for receivers to practice their ability to de-emotionalize their reactions to criticisms that come their way and get past how the criticism is being delivered and the word choices that are being used. The focus needs to be on what generally is being said. They need to ask “What is this giver trying to tell me?” Because so few are schooled on delivering criticism, chances are great that the giver is going to be awkward and ineffective in their delivery. So, what receivers need to remember is to use the control that they have by asking questions to make sure they understand the criticism itself. From there, most importantly, it’s knowing from the giver’s perspective what is being asked of them to do better. That is key!

If receivers don’t know what’s being asked of them or what they are doing wrong and they guess incorrectly, what happens over time is that receivers become discouraged and eventually say to themselves, “It seems that I can never satisfy my boss, co-worker, or customer.” So, receivers need to be effective at knowing what action they need to take from the giver’s perspective. When they do that, they can better determine if they buy into what’s being asked of them. Then they are positioned to best direct their energies in productive ways to remedy the situation. That’s making the control that’s theirs work for them.

Why is it important for receivers to make the giver feel comfortable?

Receivers need to make givers feel comfortable because people giving criticism don’t enjoy giving it any more than receivers enjoy getting it. So, by the receiver making the giver feel comfortable, it helps to bring out the best in the giver and that translates to a more productive conversation.

But there’s more. If receivers immediately become defensive and argumentative, bosses with their long to-do lists will most likely be inclined to put this conversation on the bottom of their to do list. After all, the boss may be silently thinking, “Who needs the hassle?” Now the receiver puts in jeopardy potentially valuable information that could help them reach the outcomes they desire.

If you were to ask me what “making the giver feel comfortable” means, I’d probably say two things off the top of my head. First, making sure that the receiver does not interrupt immediately – let the giver finish what they have to say. Secondly, the receiver really needs to listen carefully to what the giver is saying or trying to say. Most givers have not been educated in giving criticism and can easily come across as awkward in their ability to give criticism. This is important for receivers to be aware of. Rather than immediately taking a defensive stance, receivers need to ask questions with the intent of trying to understand where the giver is coming from and where there is potential value in what the giver is trying to say.

What are some things we should look for in deciding whether to accept or reject criticism?

When it comes to accepting or rejecting criticism as a receiver, one of the first things you as a receiver should look for are specific examples and facts. Are the facts accurate and do the examples support the criticism? But, it isn’t always the case that facts or examples get coupled with a criticism. And to ask for them can sometimes confuse the main focus of what is being said. For example, let’s say that you and your boss are in a casual conversation about the quality of education today in schools. Somehow, the boss gets around to telling you how you need to improve your writing skills. He mentions that he has noticed that sometimes your sentences are too long, or they are fragmented, or that you are using pronouns incorrectly. As the receiver, you naturally might want to ask for examples, but the boss cannot provide any at the moment. Rather than reject the criticism because your boss doesn’t have any facts handy, you may want to step back and zoom out to the macro or bigger picture and ask yourself whether what your boss is saying makes sense and may be something worth taking a look at by going through correspondence you have shared with him in the past.

Here are a couple signals that tell you that you really want to pay attention to whether the giver really does have your best interest in mind and is trying to be helpful. If the giver is criticizing you right before you’re getting ready to make a presentation or go into a big meeting with your customer, or if they compare you to a known enemy, or if they exaggerate the criticism so that it is way out of proportion to the “crime” – red flags should cause you to question their motive. While these could be signs that the giver does not have your best interest in mind, remember that is not always the case. More likely than not, we deal with givers who are unskilled at giving criticism. Sometimes the criticism is not meant to be hurtful or unhelpful, it’s just a matter of the giver being poorly trained in the delivery.

Jacket image, The Truth Doesn't Have to Hurt, by Deb BrightWhenever you are unsure of a giver’s true intent, it never hurts to go back to givers to explore more precisely what they meant. By exploring the matter in greater detail, givers have another chance to demonstrate their motive…be it helpful or hurtful!


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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