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Delivering Criticism Smoothly

The "Critical I"

Julia is having lunch with her cousin Carla. Julia has the egg salad on whole wheat. Carla has the smoked salmon. Even with the iced tea and tip, Julia figures her bill will come in under $10. Carla says, "Let's see: $16.50 should cover your end."

Julia can respond in a number of ways:

    Wrong: "Carla, you're wrong. How on earth do you get $16.50?"
    Worse: "What are you trying to pull?"
    Better: "I'm getting a different total. Shall we check the math?"

By using the last example and starting out with the magical "I" word, Julia effectively takes over the ownership of the comments and the situation. This method employs the critical I. Now Carla is less likely to feel she is under attack and thus in need of throwing up a defense or launching a counteroffensive.

But let's assume that, instead of the "I" approach, Julia says: "Carla, you're wrong. How on earth do you get $16.50?"

Carla takes it calmly. She knows that it's always a bad idea to try to laugh off criticism or become defensive. People usually become defensive only when they know they are wrong.

Mind Your P's and Q's

The most important factor in any communication is the receiver of the information, not the sender. Thus, what you hear is more important than what I say. "I'm not sure I was clear about that" is much better than "You don't understand."

Carla's possible responses:

    Wrong: "Are you accusing me of trying to cheat you?"
    Better: "I don't understand what you mean." Or "Let's have a look at this."

Julia, it turns out, forgot about that glass of expensive Chardonnay she had ordered. They had a little laugh about it and parted friends.

This little scenario is typical of the situations in which you find you must challenge or criticize someone. When that happens, think first of the critical I. If you do, here are some responses you might come up with in response to a similar sticky situation:

"I think you've been misinformed."

"That doesn't sound quite right to me."

"I'm having trouble understanding why you …."

Softening the Blow

When delivering criticism, keep these points in mind:

  • Avoid the "but" bomb. "I thought the points you made in your report were excellent, but …." The but bomb immediately sends up a flare and triggers a defensive reaction. The person hears but and begins constructing a reply instead of listening closely to your further comments. Try: "I thought your report was outstanding, and next time I suggest you include …." Next time does not invalidate the first part of the sentence as but does.
  • Keep it impersonal. Never say that some act or person was dumb or wrong. Talk about behavior, not personality.
  • Keep it private. If you criticize someone in the presence of others, the person is not thinking about your message, but about being humiliated.
  • Be specific. Don't criticize in generalizations. Mention specific incidents or behaviors.
  • Soften the impact. Try beginning with a compliment: "You are usually a very considerate person. That's why I was so surprised at your behavior at lunch today."
  • Try advice. You can also deliver criticism in the form of advice. Instead of saying, "You'll never even reach the basket if you shoot the ball like that," say, "I've found that keeping my elbows in close gives the shot more power."

More on: Manners

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette © 2004 by Mary Mitchell. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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