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Focus your observations and attention on the problem, rather than the person.
It is better to give than to receive. Unless it’s criticism. Then it’s pretty much a losing proposition on both sides of the coin. Most people will admit that being on the receiving end of even constructive criticism stings. What about giving it? Is there a way to go about it that helps the recipient feel okay?
There’s one thing totally outside your control. Choose whatever words you like, but you still will not have total control over how someone will interpret them. You mean well, but they don’t have to take it that way. Here are 5 ways you can offer constructive feedback to coworkers without making them feel bad about it.
1. Nothing personal
How can someone not take constructive criticism personally? Nobody said deciding to offer criticism of any kind would be easy. It’ll be taken personally because it is aimed at someone specifically.
Trying to deliver your criticism in a way that won’t be taken personally may not be possible. You can, however, separate someone’s work behavior from their personal behavior. Focus on highly-specific actions so that the person receiving the feedback doesn’t convert it into a general observation.
“You’ll have less trouble with the accounting department if you respond to their expense report questions as soon as you get them,” is specific. “You’re slow to get back on some things” leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
2. Keep it inspirational
Criticism is useless unless its objective is to seek mutual improvement. Do you really want to help this coworker improve? Make sure your intent is communicated. It’s the reason why they call it “constructive” criticism.
The objective is to volunteer positive feedback—as well as suggestions—that identify a problem. Focus on the problem and not the person. The more targeted and specific you can be, the less the recipient of the criticism will feel as if they are being personally singled out and made to feel bad.
Motivational experts often call this the “sandwich approach.” Your likely-to-be-construed-as-negative criticism is positioned between two positive observations:
Compliment | Criticize | Compliment
The delivery may help to soften what might feel like personal attack. It also can help with retaining their attention. Many people tend to tune out when they start hearing things they don’t like. The most important thing to remember about the sandwich approach is that you must be sincere with your positive observations. Otherwise, your sandwich is more like throwing gasoline on a fire.
3. Skip the instruction
Don’t tell me what to do. We hated it as a kid, and we develop no love or tolerance for it as adults. We especially don’t appreciate being instructed by coworkers.
Stick with observations. Be specific about how your coworker’s actions impact you. Here’s the big, important thing: Don’t offer advice on how the recipient should fix the problem. Observe. Simply identify the issue.
Then, volunteer to help your coworker fix the problem. Skip the instruction. Offer only support. It’s already bad enough that you’ve brought something negative to their attention. Now you’re going to offer them advice on how to fix it, too?
4. Phrases to avoid
There are certain approaches to constructive criticism that just set you up for a fall. As you formulate your observation, steer clear of these phrases:
- You should…
- I wish…
- You never… or you always…
- I can’t believe…
- How can you not see…
5. Steering clear of judgmental language
Keeping it about the situation and not the person means navigating past any type of accusatory language and moving toward neutral statements that communicate nothing but an observation. Try approaches starting with:
- I’m curious about understanding…
- I’m feeling disappointed because what’s important to me is…
- I notice that…
- Can you help me understand…
- What happened?
Offering constructive criticism means you will be dealing with ego. Emotion takes over and it’s difficult to continue at a logical level. Even so, you’ll find offering constructive criticism works better when you remember to keep it as a conversation. The person to whom you’re giving the criticism should be doing as much talking as you.
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