The Greek philosopher Aristotle had a foolproof strategy to avoid criticism. The answer, he said, was “saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
None of us gets through life without being criticized, whether it’s by parents, teachers, friends, bosses, coworkers or spouses.
Some differentiate criticism from feedback. They say criticism implies judgment, while feedback is about looking for a solution. A good distinction, but feedback often contains elements of criticism. And criticism can be delivered with the most caring intentions.
Whether you call it feedback or constructive criticism, it can alert us to what isn’t working. It offers a new perspective, helping us see what we have missed. Receiving feedback and coaching is part of a healthy lifestyle, like exercise.
Criticism should always be used carefully. Like TNT, when it is handled properly, it can clear ground for new discoveries and improvement. Mishandled, it can explode and damage relationships. How can we deliver and receive it so it is helpful, not hurtful? Here are some tips offered through the lens of The FISH! Philosophy:
Build a feedback foundation
Some believe feedback should be delivered in an culture of “radical transparency.” The more blunt the critique, however negative, the tougher you get and the better you perform.
This approach may work for some driven personalities, but it’s ineffective for many. Peer-review studies show when people receive consistently negative feedback from coworkers, they seek new relationships with people who view them more positively. This is known as “shopping for confirmation.”
This does not mean we should be coddled or insulated from understanding how we impact others. It doesn’t mean we should only spend time with people who confirm our limited view of ourselves.
It simply means our instinct is to seek the company of those who make us feel valued. Feedback is most effective in cultures where people feel supported and appreciated.
How we accept feedback depends on how we view the person offering it. When you receive some “loving coaching” from a family member, because you know they care about you, you don’t need to look elsewhere for validation.
Create a culture where colleagues choose to Be There for each other and Make Their Day. The highest performing teams average five positive comments for every negative one. When you do give constructive criticism, it is likely to be received in the spirit with which you offer it.
What’s your objective?
To deliver effective feedback, you must be clear why you are giving it. Abraham Lincoln said it well, “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”
Is your goal to help the person be more successful? Is it to make the team better? Or do you just want them to do it your way?
Focus on what they need from you vs. what you need from them. Be aware of any biases and judgments that might affect your feedback. Don’t demand they exactly follow your example and experiences. Help them see their own path to success.
Asking questions is a great way to guide them to their own solutions. “What” questions are often best, as in “What happened? What did you want to have happen? What will you do to make it happen next time?”
Focus on strengths
Feedback should always lead to learning. Most people learn best when we focus on their strengths, rather than their weaknesses.
In an experiment reported in the Harvard Business Review, students were asked how to correct what they thought they were doing poorly. MRI imaging showed their brains went into “fight or flight” mode, impairing their ability to think clearly.
The researchers asked another group of students about their goals and how they could accomplish them. The region of their brain associated with relaxation, reasoning and creativity lit up.
To give effective feedback, HBR says, focus on what people are doing well and what they are excited about. Help them build on their strengths to accomplish their objectives.
When you see a coworker doing something well, something that helps the team or a customer, call it out in the moment. Be specific about what you observed and its impact. They will want to do more of it—and you will Make Their Day.
We’ve talked about how to offer feedback. How should you receive it? It starts with choosing an attitude of acceptance and awareness.
Recognize that being critiqued is a part of every job. If you are a writer, you will get edited. Every editorial change is basically a criticism. But you accept and use it to make your article better. It’s the same with every job.
Understand your triggers. For example, if you pride yourself on being attentive to detail, do comments about errors set you off? When it happens, how do you usually react? Are you calm on the outside but raging on the inside?
Plan ahead. How do you want to respond? When the feedback comes, take a breath or five. Don’t jump to conclusions about the reason for the criticism. Ask questions to better understand what they are saying and why. Be a curious student of your impact.
Most people dislike giving feedback as much as receiving it. When they offer you constructive criticism, thank them. They took a chance to help you improve, with no guarantee you’d take it well.
Once you’ve received the feedback, take time to process it. Have an honest talk with yourself. Decide which feedback is useful and what isn’t. Then put it into action. That’s the only way feedback makes a positive, lasting difference.