Workplace Wisdom

How to Avoid the Mortal Combat of Personal Criticism

It’s normal to be “conflict-averse.” Most of us tend to try to avoid creating bad feelings among people. We shy away from anything that seems like a secret, can’t be helped, or isn’t worth getting worked up over because “It’s not anything personal” or “He’s just that way; he doesn’t mean anything by it.”

Plus, virtually nobody likes the way conflict looks — the reddened faces, the raised voices, the awkward aftermath in which no one meets anyone else’s eyes — so we just know we don’t want to go there.

But even when we suppress our conflicting views and feelings in hope of keeping the peace, or when we “go along to get along,” we often create bad feelings anyway.

Don’t Criticize — Complain Instead!

It’s possible to express disagreement — even deeply-held, long-felt disagreement — without drama, if drama is not your style. Stick to conversation about facts and ideas, and avoid talking about people or personalities. Theoretically at least, facts and ideas can be introduced as concepts and hypotheticals and discussed with some neutrality.

Once you start talking about people — “the way they are” or “what’s wrong with so-and-so” — you divide the world into for or against instead of bringing it together in a community of interest through what if and how about.

So rather than criticize a situation or a person outright, try to position your negative content as complaints or objections. Criticism is binary — by definition, it’s pointing out something that’s unsatisfactory about the other person or what they do. Criticism declares, “I’m right and you’re not: You’ve been judged and found wanting.”

But a complaint is the real “It’s not about you, it’s about me” conversation. A complaint describes the impact on you (or someone else) of something that is happening in the world and your (or someone else’s) reaction to that impact. A well-positioned complaint permits a much wider range of interpretation and response, and therefore feels much less like an attack than direct criticism does.

Ways to Structure Confrontation

When you’re trying to hold a respectful confrontation, it’s hard to craft language that feels natural and still gets your point across. Here are a couple of suggestions for opening the conversation and giving the other person plenty of room to explain, consider other approaches, and preserve face and dignity:

“You might not be aware that when you do X, it has a negative impact on me/my department/the things I’m responsible for in the following way… Can you find another approach that won’t create a problem for me?”

“I was disappointed with the way X worked out/My expectations really weren’t met/This didn’t come out the way I expected… So it’s possible that I wasn’t clear enough/So I’m wondering if I wasn’t clear enough when I explained what I wanted. Please hear me out.”

Confrontational Alternatives

No two conflicts are the same, so your tactics should vary accordingly. Consider these alternative starting positions:

  • Feedback — “Have you noticed X?” or “I need to make you aware of X.”
  • Suggestions or recommendations — “Here’s something new to consider or try” separate from any judgments about current practice.
  • Options — “Do you want to do X this way or that way? Here are some of the pros and cons of each…”

Remarkably, even directives from an appropriate authority can feel better than criticism: “Here’s what we need in this situation. Here’s why. Now go to it.”

So long as there is no implied attack — “What’s wrong with you that you didn’t already know this?” — these alternatives can be used without damage to either party.

Onward and upward,

LK

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