Receiving criticism and providing useful critical feedback are some of the most difficult activities we’re required to engage in. Everyone needs feedback in order to improve their abilities, but given the emotional effect of criticism, accepting it without taking it personally is a challenge. In this excerpt from my new book, Brave: 50 Everyday Acts of Courage to Thrive in Work, Love and Life, I talk about how to give and receive productive criticism. It isn’t easy, but with practice, you’ll be on the path to dealing in effective feedback and a happier, braver, and more productive life.
Hillary Clinton once said, ‘It is important to learn how to take criticism seriously but not personally’. It’s excellent advice, but if you’ve ever been criticised (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) you’ll know that it’s easier said than done, even when it’s given in the gentlest of ways with the best of intentions. That’s because hearing critical feedback strikes at the heart of two core human needs — the need to learn and grow, and the need to be accepted just the way we are. Consequently, even a gentle suggestion to do something differently can leave us feeling wounded. Encouragement not to ‘take it personally’ often does little to soften the blow.
Yet, as Hillary Clinton, a woman who’s had more criticism directed her way than most people, has also said, ‘Critics can be your best friends if you listen to them, and learn from them, but don’t get dragged down by them’. Learning to do that is as important to your growth and success in work and life as your willingness to offer others constructive feedback is to theirs.
Many people are extremely reluctant to offer critical feedback. It’s because we’re so uncomfortable with the emotions that can arise from it — our own and others’. We hate to cause offense and we loathe hurting other people’s feelings or inciting resentment, which only exacerbates existing issues. The safer option is to simply say nothing, let people continue on as they are, and just hope they’ll eventually realise how their behaviour is hurting them and impacting others. But problematic behaviours that may seem obvious to you are rarely obvious to the person exhibiting
them. Let’s face it, if it were easy to see how our actions limited our success we’d be more proactive in changing them!
Which is why, if you can see that someone is acting in a way that limits their success, you do them a profound disservice if you shy away from giving them feedback for fear of causing offence. Of course, that’s not to say you should walk around dishing out your version of ‘constructive criticism’ all day (as self-satisfying as that may be!). After all, if people have no regard for what you have to say, it wastes everyone’s time. However, whether it’s someone you’re managing or someone you simply care about seeing do better, integrity calls you to stop playing so safe and to lay your own comfort on the line for the sake of the good your feedback might do.
Feedback should never be given lightly and must always be delivered considerately, with the highest of intentions for the person you’re giving it to. The reality is that it’s extremely easy to be critical of people. Many people excel at it and spend their lives offering up unsolicited and unwanted critiques of everyone. It’s not so easy to be critical in a way that people can accept without offence, act on positively and ultimately be thankful for.
So, before you open your mouth to offer feedback, take time to get really clear about why you want to give it and how doing so will provide a genuine service to the person you’re giving it to. What comes from the heart lands on the heart. Criticism that comes from fear — or the fear-related emotions of insecurity, defensiveness, anxiety, anger, jealousy or pride — is guaranteed not to land well and will only trigger similar emotions in others. Sure, you may get something off your chest, vent your frustration and put someone back in their place, but at what cost to trust, integrity, performance and your future relationship?
When it comes to actually delivering the feedback, it’s important to focus on the behaviour you want to see more of, rather than the behaviour you’re hoping will change. You can do this with my simple, four-step ACED model. (Don’t you love acronyms!) Hopefully it will help you ace your feedback next time you feel compelled to give it.
Withholding feedback that could help someone be more successful deprives them of an invaluable opportunity to better themselves. Sure, people may not always like what you have to say. They may not even agree with you. However, by not giving them the opportunity to hear what’s on your mind — and how their behaviour impacts you, others and their own future — you’re doing everyone a profound disservice.
There’s no fail-safe way to give critical feedback. It’s why so many don’t. What if they burst into tears? What if they start screaming insults at you? What if they quit their job or accuse you of bullying? Yes, they’re all risks you have to take. But when you park your ego and enter into a conversation clear on how you intend to help, you can trust in the knowledge that you ultimately will help. Surely that’s worth the risk.
Margie Warrell is an internationally recognized thought leader in human potential; in her travels through over 65 countries, she’s learned first hand about resilience and perseverance. Margie’s new book, Brave: 50 Everyday Acts of Courage to Thrive in Work, Love and Life is a handbook for building your “bravery muscles” in work and life.