It’s not easy to hear that you’re doing something wrong. The term “constructive criticism” can sometimes feel like nothing more than a euphemism for something much more dire when you’re on the receiving end. But, there is quite a spectrum when it comes to these kinds of exchanges, and the methods used by the person issuing the critique can help point the discussion toward one extreme or the other. It’s not easy to deliver constructive criticism, either. So, if you have something difficult you need to say to someone at work, here are some tips for handling that conversation with finesse.
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- Be clear.
When it comes to communication, be it oral or written, clarity is key. Your message will definitely be lost if it’s not delivered clearly in the first place. It can be difficult to speak clearly when you’re feeling uptight about what you have to say. So, try to relax. Don’t beat around the bush too much or the clarity of your message could suffer. First and foremost, be sure that you know what you’re going to communicate in advance and prioritize delivering that information clearly. Otherwise this whole difficult conversation could be for nothing.
- Be kind, but be sincere.
While it is important to be direct, for the sake of clarity, it’s also important to be kind – and those things are not mutually exclusive. Don’t lean on false praise to cushion the blow of your critique or you could risk coming off as insincere. The next time you go to issue a compliment, you might find that this other person begins to brace for impact rather than accepts the praise. No, now isn’t the time to give a compliment sandwich with your criticism wedged in the middle. Instead, be careful to speak kindly and calmly. Also, be sincere. If it’s hard for you to tell the person how you feel, say that. If you felt this mistake really wasn’t “like them,” say that too. Just because you’re providing a little constructive criticism here doesn’t mean you have to stop being a good person.
It’s hard to receive constructive feedback, so be sensitive when planning your approach. Do everything you can to avoid having the conversation in public – it’s really best to be one-to-one for these kinds of things. Also, don’t talk about what went wrong right in the moment; wait until the dust has settled a little and pick a time to sit down and talk about it later. This gives the other person time to recover and also time to reflect before your talk.
- Beware of the risks – especially if you’re constructively criticizing a boss or a manager.
When negative feedback isn’t delivered and received well, the consequences can be pretty devastating. A study conducted by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, founders of the corporate training firm VitalSmarts, found that delivering criticism can be pretty costly. Thirty-one percent of respondents said that doing so had cost them a pay increase, a promotion, or even their job. Maxfield’s example of a woman who complained about lack of support with a project and was “never fully forgiven for it by her boss,” almost certainly because her boss’s boss was in the room at the same time, is an excellent example to consider. It’s always best to tread lightly with criticism, especially if it’s being delivered to, or even just near, a higher-up. No matter the circumstances, be careful when criticizing someone else. Even if it just feels like a little harmless complaining, it could be received differently.
- Offer a solution.
It’s easy to notice when something hasn’t gone well. After a difficult meeting, it doesn’t take a genius to point out that “the conversation with that client did not go well.” But, is it productive? Issuing a criticism without understanding how things should have and could have been handled differently is mostly just a great big waste of time. So, be sure to offer a solution for the future, and maybe even give some guidance toward righting the wrongs that have already occurred.
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