Giving Criticism

23.07.2021 |

Episode #8 of the course Mastering your conversations by John Robin


Welcome back to the course!

In yesterday’s lesson, we unpacked the second kind of shift toward assertive communication—the technique of creating assertive arguments by using the “I might be wrong” standpoint—aka, your inner negotiator.

Now it’s time to move onto the last type of shift to make: moving from passive-aggressive communication to assertive. In terms of conversation skills, this is very important, since it’s also known as giving criticism.


Gossip’s Disguise

Here might be a familiar situation.

Your boss drives you crazy. Not just you, but all your coworkers as well. She’s sneaky. She micromanages everyone’s work. She compartmentalizes employees. She makes prejudiced comments. She’s toxic to the workplace.

Of course, you’ve never told her that, nor have any of your coworkers.

But everyone has been emailing each other, and chatting around the coffee room, or ranting through text messages on off-hours about your boss’s latest tactic.

Do you see what’s wrong with this situation?

Everyone is being passive-aggressive.

Gossip is one of the most common disguises for passive-aggressive communication. When we really don’t like someone but we are afraid to approach them—often seen in the workplace because bosses can fire you if you’re not careful!—instead of finding a way to directly state your needs, you seek roundabout ways to feel heard, often through commiserating to others who are suffering the same.

What we really should be doing is finding a respectful way to share criticism, but instead, we cave into the easier route: gossip.

Gossip is a bad form of conversation. The problem is, often, it can also bring out the cruel side of people. Everyone in the gossip-sharing circle has united around a common gripe with another person. Sometimes, people process their frustrations by making jokes. Because gossip is done behind someone’s back, it’s easy to share in a secret joke assuming the other person won’t find out.

Words can hurt. Once you criticize someone by calling them boring, lazy, or weird, you can never take those words back. If they catch wind of these words, those words might be etched in their mind forever.

So, how do we get away from gossip, and instead become more assertive? Let’s find out in our tip of the day.


Tip of the Day: Preparing Yourself to Give Assertive Criticism

Let’s use the boss example above to showcase our tip of the day.

First of all, when you recognize that you’re gossiping and want to stop, congratulations. You’ve taken half the steps needed to become more assertive.

Now, the rest of the battle lies in how you can assertively give criticism in a situation that’s led you to avoid the confrontation.

There is almost always going to be stressful when you try to give criticism. Be it a family member who gets defensive over certain topics, which you’ve learned to avoid, or a friend who has a certain habit that drives you crazy, but you assume he just can’t help it, it’s always important to remember there’s a reason you took the easier road to gossip.

In the case of your boss, the best way to give criticism would be to schedule a meeting and prepare yourself ahead of time. It often helps if you rehearse with someone who’s not biased—that is, not part of the gossip circle. This could be a trusted family member or close friend.

When you enter the meeting, aside from being prepared to deliver your criticism, remember your points of reframing for authentic assertiveness:

• Avoid “you” phrases

• Use “I” phrases

• Communicating your feelings

• Considering the other person’s feelings

• Create openings for the other person

Especially with your boss, you want to be careful not to sound like you are accusing her of anything. Your role is to share your feelings about the work you’re doing and how you feel in your workplace.

In the above description of your boss, notice how I worded things:

She’s sneaky. She micromanages everyone’s work. She compartmentalizes employees. She makes prejudiced comments. She’s toxic to the workplace.

All these sentences are filtered through the lens of gossip. This is how you’ve learned to think about your boss by way of the words you and your coworkers have come up with, mostly as you vent to each other. The lens of gossip almost always distorts things.

When you prepare to give criticism, try to objectively unpack each detail. Ask yourself, what is the evidence?

For example, take the first three points:

She’s sneaky. She micromanages everyone’s work. She compartmentalizes employees.

What is it about her behavior that makes you feel this way? You certainly won’t be saying that in your meeting!

Let’s say you think this through and realize that usually, your boss will often make decisions without including you, such as emailing other employees to cancel out work you’ve done on important projects.

Your criticism for her then is:

“I’ve noticed on a few projects I put together that you’ve made changes without notifying me. I’d really like to be aware of anything I’m doing wrong so I can improve my work.”

When it comes to giving criticism, you also want to pick your battles. The prejudiced comments and workplace toxicity, for example, are pretty big. In fact, you might find, as you try to unpack the objective details, that the whole “toxic to the workplace” part is very skewed and derived from the gossip itself.

However, if your boss has made a comment you found disrespectful, then you want your criticism to pinpoint this specific comment and how it made you feel. For example:

“When you refused my proposal that we also work with inmates, it concerned me because our programs are supposed to be available to everyone in the community we serve.”

Whether it’s your boss, or a partner who has habits that drive you crazy, the goal of giving criticism is to respectfully share the actual details of what’s being done and how you feel about it.

Many times, people who receive criticism—if it’s delivered assertively—will be grateful to you for sharing, and this will actually work to build rapport going forward. Most importantly, if the other person is receptive, it can lead to a helpful dialog about your specific criticisms and you will get the other person’s viewpoint, and hopefully a compromise between both sides on how to move forward.

Stay tuned for our next lesson, where we’ll move on to difficult conversations!


Recommended book

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey


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