How Are Our Words Interpreted? 7 Rules of Constructive Criticism

Marina Melia, Professor of Psychology, General Director of MM-Class

In our working lives, we are often displeased with the behavior, not only of our colleagues and subordinates, but also that of our boss. However, outspoken reproofs often bring conflicts (as in the fairy tale with magic mirror, which was broken when it tried to tell an obnoxious truth), while a suppressed discontent may, sooner or later, spill out. That’s why we try not to manifest our emotions, and it is no coincidence that there is lots of advice on how to do this. But, if we follow advice like this, we may only worsen the situation.

Well, is it possible to express your displeasure to a colleague, subordinate and even your boss, and not only change the situation for your good, but also considerably improve relations? Yes, it is possible, but only provided that you observe the following seven rules.

So, how to give negative feedback?

• Be concrete. Our words should be connected with a person’s actions, and not with evaluation of his personality, that is why it is important to be precise and to the point, on the specific event, without deepening or lessening it, depending on your interlocutor’s response. If an employee is late, do not generalize: “You are not punctual, you never come in time!” — you should speak only about a 15-minute late arrival.

• Be constructive. Before you start speaking, ask yourselves: What do I want to make my interlocutor understand? What do I want him to do? It is important not to require something impossible, speak only about the things that the person is able to change or control. You should express your requirements clearly, making sure that other person understands what changes we want from him.

• Speak for yourself. You should speak for yourself using the pronoun ‘I’. This way, we express our own opinions and are ready to stand by our words. It would be a mistake to deliver a speech making use of other’s opinion. Thus, a subordinate says to his manager: “You know many are displeased...” “All employees think that you....” or a chief, having called an employee on the carpet, says: “You know there are complaints against you....”

• When you talk to a person, it is important to address your displeasure to him personally: you should not allow transparent hints, especially in the presence of other people: “Well, there are some employees that come always late...” “Well, there is somebody who thinks....” Such phrases put the person in ambiguity: he cannot reply, since it was not addressed to him, but he cannot keep silent either, since he also understands, as others do, whom it was said about.

If we speak to a person directly, we will get a definite answer from him. In addition, we can choose our words more cautiously, and the feedback is more thought-out and responsible.

• Express emotions that you feel rather than evaluate somebody’s personality, without blaming him. Remember that it would be better if you speak in the past tense, e.g., “I felt hurt, when you rebuked me in the presence of others.”

When we share our feelings, it does not provoke objections of the other person, since he cannot contest our emotions. It even enhances the contact, and the other person starts to understand, how his behavior is impacts on us.

For example, an employee did not receive a compensation that he earlier had agreed upon with his management. How would he manifest his resentment? Frequently like this: “Many employees are very dissatisfied that in our company, people are not taken into consideration, they are not appreciated, but exploited and duped.” It is clear that if you accuse your bosses that way, it is highly doubtful that you will get what you want. Using the principles of constructive criticism, you can turn the conversation in the direction you want: “I like working at your company, but I am disappointed that, despite our arrangement, I did not receive the compensation of my expenses for petrol and amortization of my car.”

• Do not imagine or interpret the actions of another person, do not attribute to him your own ideas on the motives of his behavior: “You do not care about the business of our company, we are sitting and discussing here, and you did not utter a word.”

You should understand that our interpretations express our picture of the world and our ideas of relations between people, but not the motives of the other person. That’s why it is important to confine yourself to only stating the fact.

There was a case where former fellow students worked many years together, and one of them was recently appointed manager. His friend came late for 20 minutes to the first meeting that newly appointed manager held. The manager spoke out in the presence of other employees: “Many people envy the success of others and seek to undermine their authority.” In reality, his friend of many years was late to the meeting because he had driven his wife to the hospital. If the newly-fledged manager had said: “I was upset that you came late to my first meeting that I headed as the manager. I hoped for your support,” his friend would have explained the reason for his late arrival and could have shared his considerations in respect of their teamwork.

• Appropriate, timely, private. Such conversation should take place on the spot, when the situation is still topical for both parties. Do not it put off, but at the same time, our statements should not be emotional and hasty. You should think over your words and voice only the most important things. Do not nurse your grievances, do not make them the subject of your deliberations at night (I’ll tell him... And if he tells me... Well, then I’ll...). Do not recall bygone events: you do remember them, but the other person may long ago have forgotten what it is about.

Before you say the first word, make certain that at that time your opponent is ready to listen to you. For instance, if the manager is in a hurry to a meeting, where he is to deliver a speech, and at that moment, an employee stops him to inform of his inconvenient work schedule. What kind of emotions will it cause for the manager? Only annoyance and desire to brush the concerns aside.

Choose not only the right time, but the right place, were others will not disturb, since a negative feedback should be given one-on-one. That way defense mechanisms will not be switched on for the person being criticized, which in many cases happen almost automatically.

And another thing, if we want to change the situation for the better, if we want to achieve positive changes, to bring our stand to the other person, we should follow all these rules at all times. Only then we will have a chance to be heard and properly understood.