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Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D.

The 11 Commandments of Criticism

Criticism is a crucial skill, but most of us are afraid to give it.

I've started hundreds of presentations on the topic of giving and taking criticism by asking my audience to complete the sentence: “When I give criticism, I feel ________.”

If you’re like most people, you complete the aforementioned sentence with “anxious, hesitant, embarrassed, and fearful” or other words that communicate discomfort. Indeed, few of us tell our partner or friend, "Hey, I can’t wait to criticize my boss or client.”

For most, giving criticism often arouses our recipient’s anger, anxiety, and tears. At work, it often sours relationships with the boss, colleagues, staff, and clients too. At home, there is abundant research indicating mismanaged criticism is a prelude to an unhappy marriage, and contributes to poor parenting skills.

Yet, there is an equal amount of research indicating giving and taking criticism productively is a key attribute of successful individuals, marriages, and organizations. Here, criticism is used as a tool to promote intimacy, enhance performance, and develop positive relationships.

Amongst critics, it is agreed upon they criticize by the rules to ensure the intent of their criticism—to serve its recipient—is met. Since checklists are proven to be valuable tools for establishing and enhancing effective behavior, I’ll offer you my checklist of criticism rules that are steeped in the ancestry of criticism.

There is one caveat. Master critic Henry James, in The Art of Criticism , purports that a great critic has as much as sense of human nature as erudition and knows how to make them go hand in hand. In other words, your skill for applying the art of criticism will depend on how well you can package, customize, and individualize the criticism rules to the specific criticism encounter. The more ways you can do it, the better critic you will become.

1. Perceive criticism as great critics do. Giving criticism productively starts with aligning your beliefs to the historical purpose of criticism—to communicate, educate, and motivate to do better. See criticism as an opportunity to help someone do better.

2. Manage your emotions: Criticism communicated with anger and disappointment lessens the positive impact of your message. Before you criticize, calm yourself, perhaps by using productive self-talk (“stay focused, breath slowly”) and by remembering your positive intent.

3. Be strategic: “How can I communicate this information so he/she will be receptive?” is first. Next, anticipate their reaction and how you will respond if he/she becomes angry, silent, or retaliatory, cries, or flatly denies what you say. Think of a criticism you have to give—can you communicate it three different ways?

4. Protect self-esteem: Your coworker might be stubborn, but calling or thinking of him as pigheaded will not help. Avoid destructive labels, and make criticism a matter of differences, not a right-wrong issue; the latter creates power struggles.

5. Leverage timing: “Is this the time to offer my 'evaluation?'” There is a time and a place for everything and you can phrase criticism perfectly but if the timing is off, all is for naught. Do you criticize someone publicly or privately, and when would you make exceptions?

6. Be improvement-oriented: You can’t change the past, so stop telling him or her what they did wrong; it will only evoke defensiveness. Focus on how results/project/behavior can be improved by emphasizing future performance: “Next time you give a presentation, leave more time for questions.”

7. Remember the merits without the But: Criticism is an evaluation of merits and demerits, not merits but demerits. The word "but" negates, as in, “You are doing great but…. Better: “Here are some ways the report can be even better… are the parts that are really good.” Remembering the merits also helps both parties keep criticism in perspective.

8. Acknowledge your subjectivity: Your criticism is not a fact nor should it sound like an accusation: “Your work is sloppy.” It will be countered with, “that’s your opinion,” and so it is, so take responsibility for your thoughts and minimize defensiveness; “In my opinion…I think…This is how it looks to me,” are non-accusatory and help make recipients curious to hear your thoughts. "Your work is sloppy" would be better communicated as, “I think you can make your work a lot better.”

9. Put motivation into your criticism: “Work hard so I can get my promotion“ is surely not going to have motivational impact. People change for themselves. Before you criticize ask, “How is this going to help my recipient? Are there tangible incentives (raise, promotion) or intangible incentives (recognition, group inclusion)? If one incentive doesn’t work, try another. What if there are no incentives? How do you motivate the unmotivated?

10. Know your criterion: Avoid criticism conflict by identifying, clarifying, and communicating the criteria you use for formulating your criticisms. People use different criterions to evaluate the same work, and often interpret the same criterion differently. Can you really articulate the difference between a “four” and a “five”? Is everyone using the same criteria? Is my criterion realistic and when does it change? Is your staff in sync on criterions?

11. Reinforce, troubleshoot, back to being strategic: When you note a positive response to your criticism, make sure you support the efforts by offering praise: “Thank you for being open to what I have to say,” “Hey, I see you are really doing better…Great!” If you are not getting the results, step back, look at how you are presenting the criticism, and try a different approach…there is always another option!