Criticism – how to criticize with kindness?

We are no strangers to criticism – delivered by our bosses, partners, colleagues and, very frequently, even by ourselves. It seems to me that it has been even easier to express criticism towards others since advanced technologies have become available. We do not have to look into somebody’s eyes. A message or a post written in the social media is enough. Let them know what kind of people they are, let them think whatever they want to and finally start to act differently. Let them know my personal opinion. After all, people keep saying: „We should not keep your feelings only to yourself, express yourself, talk about what you feel” etc.

We are criticized and we also criticize others, to a greater or lesser extent. I do not intend to defend criticism because I believe that it does not need defending. Criticism in itself is good if used for relevant reasons at the right time and in the right way. I am going to share with you some far-from-theoretical knowledge, i.e. the experience I have gained thanks to working with people who are smarter than me and who helped me learn a lot.

Why should we criticize?

Interestingly, when – during training courses or consultations of competence test results – I ask people about when we should criticize others, I often am told that we should do it when someone has earned it. And when I ask them when we should recognize others, then I hear that we should do it if someone has REALLY earned it. People also say that one should be careful with all that recognition; it should not be used too often, so as not to boost self-confidence too much. Because what would we do then? Oh, those dilemmas…

To be honest, I do not think it is right to criticize always and use recognition only in exceptional situations. I have learnt that it is important to do both, as it can be extremely valuable, provided that the goal is right. That goal is to help somebody learn, adopt a different perspective (and recognition can help that as well!). Today I am going to focus only on…

…how to criticize?

I am a rather hot-tempered person, so I tend to react very fast in certain situations („D” behavior style). That is why, for years, I used to tell people immediately that they had done something wrong. I also did not use to have any problems with choosing the right arguments, as I usually find it easy to notice what is wrong or what can be improved (compliant behavior style – C). I let my emotions take over my actions (because supposedly you cannot keep them bottled up) but did it result in any permanent change in the behavior of the other party? That is doubtful. I mentioned a permanent change deliberately because the fact that someone modified something just for a moment, out of fear or for the sake of peace  and quiet, is definitely not an achievement. My criticism very often resulted in the other party feeling really offended. I was frequently surprised by that, as my intentions were always good.

Now, before I start saying something or write an important e-mail, I ask myself the following questions: Why am I doing this? What is my aim? If my actual intention is to point out somebody’s mistake or a shortcoming, I decide against it. I also hold back when I feel that I can lose control over my emotions any time. Seriously. I move on to another task, turn on loud music, go for a walk or simply clean the house – if that is where I am at that time. And I don’t intend to let it go. I will come back to the criticism but I need to take my time to calm down. In my journal, where I write down what I have learnt from my mistakes, I noted: „When I’m angry, I don’t write e-mails, I don’t call. I take my time to simply calm down.” This is one of the most difficult challenges for me, as WAITING is against my nature. However, I make an effort to deal with it as I have seen many times that this is the most effective strategy to criticize constructively – to name what I disagree with, what I feel bad about or simply what made me angry. On many occasions waiting helped me „verify” whether something I wanted to criticize was actually worth it. It turned out that every time my inner perfectionism was starting to take over, my expectations towards others might have simply been exaggerated. I am still learning how to take it easy whenever possible. It will not make a huge change, but will enable others to make mistakes and thus learn from them and become more experienced.

In other cases, if I feel that the criticism is justified, when I take back control over my emotions, I think about what needs to be said to reach the goal, namely:

– to find a solution in case of a difficult situation and not to dwell on what went wrong

– to help others learn from their mistakes instead of complaining that something should have been done differently, that it’s not the way to go, etc.

In both cases:

  1. I point out what has happened, what was wrong, what I disagree with (I refer to specific behaviors), but I focus on the FUTURE, on what we are yet to achieve together, what our expectations are and what can potentially be learnt from a certain mistake;
  2. I stick to my own scope of responsibilities, which means that I do not tell them that they are hopeless, that they did something really poorly, that they lack professionalism. I tell them about my feelings instead: that I cannot accept something, I am angry about it, I have to disagree, I am disappointed etc.

Let me give you an example. Seemed to have been testing me with his permanent failure to deliver work on time, although previously I had explained that I find punctuality extremely relevant. In the case of one of the most significant projects, he once again failed to deliver the report on time. All they told me is that they are swamped with work and that I do not understand how much time it takes to prepare these analyses. I am very sensitive when it comes to passing the buck on me and I was about to start writing an e-mail immediately but …I decided against it. On that day I went on a power walk and came back with a ready e-mail in my head. That time was enough to allow me to describe the situation without emotions: “Once again, the report I received included errors and I got it after the deadline, only after I request it. That is not acceptable, especially bearing in mind that we met before the project was launched specifically to agree on the details and to talk about our expectations. I am angry, because I am keeping my end of the bargain, including your expectations regarding the payment deadline. I expect you to do the same. I need to receive the corrected report by noon. What kind of solution could you suggest in this situation?”

Back when I was a coach, I used to teach a specific criticism technique. Now I know that it is not the word order that matters but criticizing for the right reasons. It is all about respecting both myself and the other party. It is about searching for solutions, helping others learn from their mistakes and about not focusing on problems and errors too much. How will the other party use it? I do not have 100% impact on that because me and my reactions are the only thing I have any influence on. However, I have observed that my calm criticism, not driven by emotions, inspires me to look at it not as at a certain threat, but as an opportunity for change and development.