Ask a person if he likes criticism, and he’ll probably say no. Most of us would prefer constant praise.
That being said, most of us also want to know that people take our work seriously. Meaningless praise feels empty. We crave feedback that is thoughtful and thought-provoking.
The trick is learning how to give and receive meaningful feedback.
Step 1: Learn to differentiate between criticism and feedback.
Leon F. Seltzer, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively on this subject, notes in his blog for Psychology Today that:
• Criticism is judgmental and accusatory. It can involve labeling, lecturing, moralizing and even ridiculing. Feedback focuses on providing concrete information to motivate the recipient to reconsider his or her behavior.
Example of criticism: “Maybe it’s time you invested in a new alarm clock.”
Example of feedback: “You’ve been 15 minutes late every morning this week. When you’re not here on time, it affects the entire team.”
• Criticism involves making negative assumptions about the other person’s motives. Feedback reacts not to intent but the actual result of the behavior.
Example of criticism: “There you go again telling everyone what to do. You’re always trying to keep anyone else from participating.”
Example of feedback: “You probably aren’t aware of this, but when you make all the decisions without asking others for input, they don’t feel motivated to participate.”
• Criticism, poorly given, often includes advice, commands and ultimatums, making the person receiving it feel defensive and angry, and it undermines any benefits. Feedback tries to prompt a discussion about the benefits of change.
Example of criticism: “I think you should clean up the break room for a change. I’m tired of doing it all the time.”
Example of feedback: “Up to now, I’ve handled break-room cleanup most of the time, and I don’t think it’s fair. I’d like to make a specific plan to share the responsibility. What would you think about dividing the work this way?...”
Step 2: Neutralize your inner Charlie Brown.
“One of the reasons everyone relates to Charlie Brown is he is so insecure,” says Seltzer. Realize that “we’re fundamentally OK, even when we make a mistake,” he says.
Step 3: Listen.
While your first instinct may be to argue or apologize and quickly leave the room, stay and calmly ask questions to clarify the situation. Try to determine which information is valuable and relevant and which isn’t.
—Adapted from “For Best Results, Take the Sting Out of Criticism,” Alina Tugend, The New York Times.