Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Respond to Public Criticism from a Coworker

Dear Joseph,

I have a challenge with a relatively new coworker who consistently tells me how “he would do my job if he were me.” He says this in front of my staff members. I respect his knowledge and leadership, but the frequent digs are starting to get to me. I have taken him aside and asked that he share his criticisms in private yet he continues to do it. I have been quite successful in my role but am open to constructive criticism. This individual is getting on my nerves! HELP!

Unwanted Advice

Dear Unwanted Advice,

First of all, you’ve put yourself in a rare league by simply having the first conversation. Good job! Most people grumble about these things but say nothing. By speaking up you’ve signaled that you understand the first principle of Crucial Conversations: Work on me first, us second. You’ve acknowledged that if you don’t like the result you’re getting, it’s your job to figure out how to create change. Now that you understand the principle, let’s talk about three ways you can continue to apply it:

1. Own and master your emotions. The most challenging way to “work on me first” is by owning your emotions. This means that you recognize that “my emotions are always about me.” The corollary to this concept is: “what you did does not dictate how I feel.” For example, a friend once told me his teenage son had yelled, “I hate you!” at him. I immediately felt a knot in my chest and a warm feeling of hurt and even a simmering anger—all in sympathy for my friend. I knew what a great father he was, and felt it was unjust for this ungrateful cub to lash out at him like that. As I felt this immediate rush of emotion, I noticed my friend seemed to be in an entirely different place. He seemed placid, even . . . grateful. Yes, I saw a look of hope in his eyes. I commented and inquired about this observation. My friend replied, “I was happy he finally opened up. After telling me he hated me, my son told me things that were hurting and scaring him that made it possible to connect in a way we haven’t for over a year.”

It turns out, that you can feel any emotion at any time about any event. Think about that! When people do things—like tell us how they would do our job—we can feel annoyed, angry, offended, curious, sympathetic, impassive, amused, sad, or even grateful. The whole palette of emotions is available to us. But most of us miss the opportunity to influence our emotions because we believe they are caused by the actions of others.

Two clues in your question tell me your mental “story” is taking you to a place you don’t enjoy. You say “he is getting on your nerves.” My contention is YOU are getting on your nerves. You are characterizing what he is doing as “digs” and “criticism.” That’s your story. Sure, he may be trying to point out flaws, but you are choosing to take them as digs about you rather than information about him. Furthermore, you felt it important to point out to me that you have been successful in your job. That suggests to me you are personalizing his behavior. You feel a need to defend yourself. You are making it about you. Please read that last sentence again. YOU are making it about you.

The truth is you and I are doomed for all of our existence to live around imperfect people. Some people’s imperfections will accompany more unpleasant emotions than others. But this is less because of what they are doing and more because of the story we choose to tell ourselves about it. One of the most powerful ways you can “work on me first” is to accept your role in your upset, and practice finding peace even when he continues his comments. If you choose not to use this challenge as a way of developing greater emotional responsibility and competence, life will present you other equally promising ones!

2. Escalate the conversation. Please don’t take any of what I just said as a reason not to try to influence your colleague. I can see multiple reasons that it would be wise to talk. First, because you are imperfect. You are likely to continue taking offense from his actions. And while you work on your own emotional competence, it would be helpful if he gave you fewer practice opportunities! Second, because his comments might negatively affect your influence with your team—for example, by raising questions about support of your decisions.

You’ve had a first conversation with your colleague. That was what we call a “content” conversation. The topic you addressed was, “You offer public unrequested suggestions about my work.” At the conclusion of that conversation, you requested he make his suggestions 1:1. I assume he committed to do so and is now violating that commitment. The next conversation you need to hold is a “relationship” conversation. This one is about trust—not public commentaries. The topic is: “You made a commitment to offer your suggestions in private, and yet you continue to do so publicly.”

Don’t let this conversation slide back into the merits or demerits of public criticism. That’s not what it’s about. It is about a failure to keep a promise. Keep the focus there and then ask for a new commitment. If he is willing to make one, I suggest you build accountability into the agreement—for example, by asking permission to give him feedback twice in the next 30 days about his compliance with the agreement.

3. Stay responsible. Finally, if he continues to transgress his commitment, remember, this is about you not him. He gets to be imperfect. You don’t get to expect everyone to show up the way you wish they would. What you get to do is decide how you’ll respond. Should he fail to change substantially, you can:

Remind him every time it happens.
Learn to let it go.
Walk away (in a non-punishing way) when it happens.
Transfer away from him.
Change companies.
A common argument against what I am suggesting is, “Why should I have to leave if he’s got the problem?” The answer to this is: “You’ve got the problem, so you’re responsible to solve it.”

I hope you don’t hear me as unsympathetic. I am sympathetic. It’s hard to stay responsible. It’s hard to live a life of “work on me first.” It’s so much easier to live as a powerless victim. And living that way conforms to the story we’ve been fed from the cradle—that happiness is about changing our circumstances. It takes enormous humility and honesty to embrace the worldview I’m describing. I know, because I struggle to do it, too!

Best wishes for greater peace and happiness at work,

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18 thoughts on “How to Respond to Public Criticism from a Coworker”

  1. Allison

    You didn’t speak to the co-workers intentions for the public display of comments and suggestions for how he would do the work. What if the co-workers intentions are to undermine the credibility of his co-worker and confidence of his staff? Would the conversation be any different?

    1. Raymond

      That’s a good point Allison. I thought about your reply and think the best approach would be to use the STATE principles as a first option. Restate the individual’s comments and let them know the STORY it is creating for you. Then pointedly ASK if this is what is he is trying to do or is there some other reason for their behavior. Clearing up the individual’s intent helps create safety for both of you to enter into dialogue about the situation. Again this is only one possible option in this difficult situation. At least that might be start.

  2. Dawn

    What a interesting perspective! I have never considered this lens when looking at this type of situation. I find it quite helpful in how to more efficiently handle this when it comes up. Thank you!

  3. Don S.

    As I was reading this article, my thoughts turned this principle of “work on me first” to a larger context. Not to get into politics, but I see a rapidly growing trend today, especially on college campuses,where people feel they have the right to shut other people down because they disagree with their point of view. And this seems to be encouraging a victim mentality that says: “YOU are the problem, and reason that I am unhappy, and so I have the right to shut you down.” It is the opposite of the principle you have illustrated in this excellent article. Even large groups of people are now made to feel that the problem lies with OTHERS who are keeping them from being happy and successful. This to me is a very disturbing trend in our society. Please don’t misunderstand that I fully support people speaking out and standing up for what they believe, and holding people accountable. But, the way young people in particular are being encouraged to express themselves these days to me seems to be victim mentality. if both sides feel they have the right to shut the other side down, what will get accomplished? Nothing. Thank you for this reminder that I am responsible for my own success, while holding others accountable in ways that encourage healthy dialogue rather than shutting it down.

    1. Maria

      I don’t think that is a new trend. That trend used to be used to silence younger people. Now it’s being used to call out not-so-younger people for behaviors that don’t line up with the virtues the not-so-younger claim to have. Generally, it’s important to say when what someone does doesn’t line up with what they say they believe. Accountability is important even when people don’t like to hear it.

      1. Don S.

        I agree that all (younger and older) people should be held accountable. It’s the method of shutting people down so that they are not allowed to be heard that doesn’t work. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I believe that the article that we are commenting on shows a way to hold people accountable while still encouraging open dialogue. There is a big difference.

  4. Dan

    Is it possible the coworker actually has good ideas, a clumsy way to suggest them, and the first conversation didn’t include enough “process” for how to provide a suggestion in a constructive way? Maybe “Unwanted Advice” could ask the coworker to rephrase “…if I were you I would do …” into the phrase “…I have an idea related to this situation. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

  5. Susan Dykshoorn

    The person, who is getting criticized, should report the person, who is criticizing, to that person’s supervisor. This situation is causing a hostile workplace and the person, who being criticized, should not have to put up with it.

  6. Diana Hutchinson

    Great story and perspective. Thanks for reminding me about working on myself first, and how we have a big choice as to how to interpret another’s comments. When I am feeling secure and confident, suggestions or comments from others are easier to consider or let them roll off.

  7. Laur

    This is one of the best QandAs I’ve read. Thanks

  8. Ed

    As I read the article, my thoughts were in lock-step with Allison, I do appreciate Joseph’s comments and advice, but believe he omitted a very real potential response which would be…if the behavior is not curtailed after CC efforts by Unwanted Advice to cause that to happen, UA might have to make it about the coworker and involve the next level of management. UA might find out that management is aware of the situation and already is taking steps to bring it to an end. That said, however, UA eventually might have to make a decision to move on to the next opportunity, but at least it would be with dignity (notice, not pride…) intact and the knowledge that a sincere and responsible effort was made to bring about a result that would be beneficial for all the parties involved. Good luck UA, we hope for the best.

  9. Lois Bergstrom

    After reading the article, I had to scroll back up to see if the person who asked the question was the supervisor of the critic. It appears that s/he is not. In that case, I largely agree with Joseph’s response. However, as Ed & Susan noted, since this is a workplace incident, there is the potential for this to be a human resources issue, particularly if the behavior continues unabated despite UA’s best efforts. Whether it is a “hostile workplace,” however, is entirely up to UA’s emotional response, of which s/he is in control.

  10. Carolyn

    Sometimes, I think it’s good to redirect when someone doesn’t respect a simple request. It is interesting to me the coworker offering suggestions has time to do so. Perhaps, she could consider looking at him curiously and asking, “Don’t you have your own work to attend to?” If he responds no she could then comment, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were only part-time.” This, hopefully, will cause him to reflect that the staff might think he has too much time on his hands, too, so he better go back to his own desk and get look busy. If not and he continues talking, she should ignore him and just go on about her work.

  11. Raymond

    In reply to Carolyn’s post, I must respectfully disagree. While it may feel good to make snide and sarcastic remarks to put someone in their place, this is exactly the behavior that destroys relationships and shuts down dialogue. By doing so, we are plying right into the principle of “If you don’t talk it out, you will act it out.” Sarcastic comments are always moving to violence and away from dialogue. This ultimately triggers like responses in the receiver and they will move to either silence or violence, again away from dialogue. While they may ‘look’ busy, they will be disengaged and non-productive. Whenever we fail to recognize when a conversation has turned crucial and fail to step up to it, there is a cost. In this case there will be a cost in relationships and future productivity and probably others we may not even see coming.

    There are so many good alternatives in this post, notwithstanding, the one proposed by Joseph Grenny. Before shutting the individual down, try to Start with Heart and thing about what it is that you really want. If you can do that, ask yourself if you are behaving like what you want and how you would behave if that is really what you want.

    1. Dan

      I agree with the main thought of Raymond’s comment. It seems many of the other comments are based on the premise the co-worker has bad intentions or will never change. Escalating to HR or Management before having the Relationship Conversation skips steps.

      I wrote this comment on March 20:
      Is it possible the coworker actually has good ideas, a clumsy way to suggest them, and the first conversation didn’t include enough “process” for how to provide a suggestion in a constructive way? Maybe “Unwanted Advice” could ask the coworker to rephrase “…if I were you I would do …” into the phrase “…I have an idea related to this situation. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

      I am in a work relationship with a person where I’ve had to be thoughtful about giving necessary input. While she is successful, she is known for not creating a climate for accepting other input. So I can see where the co-worker might have good intentions but a clumsy way to make a positive contribution.

      This should be about maximizing the future possibilities (business results as well as the relationship) and not vanquishing the other person.

  12. JC

    I understand that we cannot control how other act or behave but we do have the ability (and control) on how to respond. However, being that this person is new to the company, I find it quite pretentious (or arrogant and rude) on his part to be criticizing a NEW coworker in a public forum and not think twice about it and in fact, ignore this person’s request (“I have taken him aside and asked that he share his criticisms in private yet he continues to do it.”) If I were in this person’s shoes, I would speak to my direct supervisor to see what can be done.

    Since he is a new employee, he should still be on probation and this could be considered insubordination. You have given him fair and ample warning. Now it’s time to take it up a notch and start adverse actions if all other methods, including the Crucial Conversations Joseph Grenny suggested, fails.

  13. Prashant

    There are so many similarities between this advice and the asian philosophy about how our own mind creates the positive/negative experiences. Life is 10% about what happens and 90% about how you react to it. I really appreciate that I stumbled on a book and blog that takes asian spiritualism to actual practice in day to day life.

  14. SC

    I would ask privately the person offering public criticism if he/she prefers to also receive feedback publicly. Hope this raises an awareness of what he/she is doing.

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