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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Dealing with Criticism

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’d like some help on receiving criticism. My problem is that there is one executive in my organization who finds fault with my work and I find myself immediately on the defensive. I am intimidated by her confrontational style. I do not report to her, but she has taken several opportunities to critique my performance. Sometimes I would like to say, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” “I didn’t create the timeline,” or “It’s not my fault that your VP doesn’t share information with you,” but I also want to learn to buck it up.

Any ideas on how not to turn into the Tasmanian Devil or the Doe in the Headlights?

Ready to Throw in the Towel

Dear Ready,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. You’re obviously tortured with a problem many of us face and, like you, most of us wonder how much of the problem we are causing versus how much is due to the other person’s style. It’s hard to be objective when you’re in the middle of the issue and up to your neck in criticism to boot.

Let me go out on a limb here. From the way you’ve phrased the issue, my guess is that the other person is largely responsible for delivering feedback poorly. Your willingness to learn as well as your tentative tone suggest to me that you’ve bent over backward to ensure that you aren’t acting defensive or hostile. Nobody’s perfect, but let’s assume for the purposes of this response that you’re pretty close. Let’s also assume the other person does in fact act in ways that lead you to conclude she is “confrontational” and “intimidating.” (If you have a close confidant who watches the two of you interact, he or she will be able to give you a more objective viewpoint.)

When it comes to dealing with the other person, you have three choices: You can cope—that is, say nothing about the problem and legitimately let it go; you can carp—complain endlessly to friends and family but never really do anything; or you can confront the issue—step up to it and deal with it honestly and professionally. You don’t seem like a complainer and I think you’re tired of coping, so let’s take a look at a couple of issues you may want to address as you talk to the other person.

First, do you want to set up a meeting and talk about the overall pattern of behavior, or do you wait for something to happen again and then deal with the single instance? The more direct approach is to deal with the pattern, but it’s also riskier. If you say the problem been building for a while or been happening a lot, it raises the stakes. If the person is in a position of power, I’d probably deal with the next instance.

Second, what are the other person’s actual behaviors—those that have you bugged? You concluded that she is confrontational and intimidating. That tells me what you think, but not what she actually does. You probably shared these conclusions because such emotional terms make up sort of a social shorthand, but you’ll have to describe the actual behaviors to the other person if you expect her to know what she’s currently doing versus what you’d like her to do. The rule here is that the other person should immediately know what he or she is doing. You focus on behavior, not conclusions. Don’t describe more than a couple of behaviors that you’d like to see change. Anything more will feel like you’re piling it on. Once you’ve started the conversation and have the other person’s undivided attention, fight your desire to dump all your grievances out at once.

Third, with a person in a position of authority, you may want to ask for permission to hold a discussion where you’re giving her feedback. (It’s not exactly in your job description.) To do so, make it safe by sharing common ground. “I wonder if we could talk about something that I think would help us work together better.”

Fourth, you’ll want to find a way to soften the blow by using carefully chosen words. One of your biggest tools for doing this lies in your ability to separate intentions from outcome. This sounds something like this: “I don’t think you’re intending this, but on several occasions it has felt to me as if you’re critiquing me for simply following orders or doing my best to follow a policy. You suggested that my plan was ‘stupid,’ when it wasn’t even my plan.” Note how different this sounds from: “Hey, I was just following orders!” or “Don’t shoot the messenger!” Both of those expressions contain a lot of hidden, unhealthy meaning. Instead try: “This is sort of hard for me. I’m doing my best to pass on what I’ve been told and I can see that it’s causing people grief. I’m wondering what I can do to ensure that the message gets heard without causing such a stir.”

When you genuinely ask for feedback as opposed to giving others unsolicited feedback, it turns the tables. Instead of making others defensive (“What, I can’t have an opinion?!”) it helps them see how their behavior is affecting others without you sharing ugly conclusions or even bringing their behavior into question. More often than not, when you point out what kind of position they’re putting you in, they reflect on what they’ve just done and you can move to a healthy discussion of what you’d prefer to see in the future.

This tentative approach doesn’t mean that you should never talk about what others are doing. I suggested that you need to identify the other person’s behaviors because, eventually, you may want to do just that. However, if the stakes are high, your power base is low, and you want to broach the issue with the least amount of risk, start with yourself, not the other person. Then, when respectful dialogue is established on the issue, transition to the full interaction, including exactly what the other person has said and done.

In any case, think out what you want to do and say, practice the interaction in your mind, pick your moment, and good luck with your Crucial Conversation.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

3 thoughts on “Dealing with Criticism”

  1. Cabrito

    I wonder whether the statement “I do not report to her” may point to another dynamic at play. The person who should be criticizing (or approving) this inquirer’s performance is their supervisor, not any random executive in the company. And the executive should be addressing the criticism to that supervisor as the one who is responsible for the performance of people reporting to them. So maybe another question could be, What should be the role of the supervisor in this situation, and what would be the best way to involve them?

    1. Erica L. Arnold

      I really like the additional consideration of those questions (what’s the role of the supervisor, how should they be involved) in this scenario. I am hopeful as well that while considering answers to those important questions, we foster an environment where feedback can be shared beyond the constructs of our org chart. I appreciate you helping me consider this dynamic.

  2. Agathe Sector

    I agree that power dynamics should be taken into account and starting with yourself can be a lower risk approach but I have found that with people who are confrontational and intimidating who also criticize a lot, it may hurt you to start with your own failings or areas for improvement as that is what they may focus on.

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