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11 tricks to give criticism without giving offence

People tend to think that criticism is telling someone what they’ve done wrong. The word implies an expression of disapproval. Vulnerable and sensitive people react badly to criticism as it can make them feel worthless and humiliated.

Similarly, people who have an inflated sense of their own self-esteem – usually where their feelings of self-worth are not linked to actual achievements – will react defensively and may become hostile and angry.

In fact, most people’s reaction to criticism is to be defensive, unless the criticism is direct, open and specific; and unless the intention is to help the person to improve. Assertive people welcome criticism if there is respect for the person giving the criticism and if the intention is for it to be constructive and useful.

Just because you know that giving criticism is likely to cause a confrontation doesn’t mean that you should avoid it. But it does mean that you have to be clear about your reasons. Sometimes people criticise just because they are in a bad mood, to alleviate their own insecurities, because they are jealous, or because they want to feel better about themselves.

Once you are clear that your criticism is intended to effect a useful change, then you’re not doing the person any favours if you don’t point things out to them. Giving constructive criticism shows that you value the other person. The trick is to do it sensitively:

  1. Choose the right time. It’s best to tackle things as soon as possible – letting things build up makes it worse – but not when you are angry or tired.
  2. Choose the right place. Criticising someone in front of others is cruel; you may find yourself enjoying playing to the audience (but this is bullying behaviour).
  3. Check your body language is relaxed and that your voice is low and pleasant (you may have to check this again if it’s not going well).
  4. Try to begin with something positive: “I appreciate the way that you…”, but make sure that it’s specific: general praise will be forgotten – and the criticism remembered.
  5. Criticise the behaviour not the person.
  6. Don’t generalise by saying things such as “You’re lazy”. Be exact: “You’ve been late twice this week.”
  7. Express your feelings: “I was disappointed with your work on…” (if appropriate and you want to improve your relationship with them).
  8. Listen to their response and then paraphrase it: “You’re saying that you didn’t realise that….”.
  9. Ask for a specific change of behaviour or ask for their suggestions for ways to improve.
  10. If they accept what you have said, talk about the positive consequences.
  11. Decide what you’ll do if they don’t agree – or if they agree but nothing changes. You don’t have to state the negative consequences at this stage.

Sue Hadfield is the author of How to be Assertive in Any Situation.

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