Six Questions To Ask Before Criticizing

When you throw dirt, all you do is lose ground.

Nothing hurts more or lasts longer than inappropriate negative criticism. In fact, it often lasts a lifetime. And you know what I’m talking about. You can recall the nasty nicknames you were called back in grade school several years ago, and you can still remember the put-down comment made on a performance review some ten years ago.

Negative criticism has a life of its own. It keeps on cutting, and hurting, and destroying — if not done appropriately. It kills motivation and withers up the spirit.

Of course, some managers and some team members protest. They tell me, “Look. I have to work with some people who need to change. They’re not doing a very good job. What am I supposed to do? Say nothing? Pretend they’re doing a good job when they’re not? Or worse yet, lie to them and give them false compliments?”

No. I would never advocate dishonesty. And I would agree that some job behavior is not acceptable. Some people, maybe all people, need to change some things.

You shouldn’t mislead people about the kind of job they are doing. And you shouldn’t use some kind of Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand approach that is unrealistic. That would be foolish as well as dangerous.

What you should do is start with an accurate definition of honesty. Some ineffective communicators defend their hurting, negative criticism by proudly saying they’re “just being honest.” Well let’s get real. Any jerk can be “honest.” It just takes a bit of guts and a shameless disregard for the other person’s feelings.

A truly “honest” person shares the good and the bad news somewhat equally. A truly “honest” person is truthful and tactful at the same time. And a truly honest person is welcomed rather than dreaded when he says, “I just want to be honest with you for a few minutes.”

What about you? Is your “honesty” the kind of “honesty” that builds or destroys your team?

Most people need to improve their communication skills when it comes to criticism. It’s an area they just can’t afford to mess up. That’s why I recommend Dr. Sidney Simon’s book on Negative Criticism. It was written years ago, but it’s still the best one on the market.

Dr. Simon recommends criticism filters. In other words, ask yourself six questions before you criticize anyone. The questions will filter out the destructive elements from your comments. Let me outline the six filters.

Number one, is your timing right? Before you criticize someone, make sure the other person is able and ready to receive your criticism.

In other words, don’t dump your feedback simply because it’s the right time for you. Forget all that stuff about “getting it off your chest” or “letting it all hang out.”

Choose your time carefully. If you rant and rave at someone who is tired, pushed to meet deadlines, and has problems at home, you may get your negative comments “off your chest,” but you won’t motivate your coworker. You’ll simply add lowered self-esteem to your coworker’s other problems. And you’ll add one more obstacle to your working relationship.

So check it out. Ask the other person if it is a good time to talk. If it’s not a good time, set a time to talk it over. Don’t rush, but don’t dilly dally either. When you’ve arrived at a time when the other person will be in better shape to hear your feedback, move to the second filter.

Number two, are you willing to stick around long enough to help pick up the pieces? You can’t dump a bunch of negative garbage on someone’s head, move on, and expect it to work.

In fact, you haven’t earned the right to criticize someone unless you care enough to hear the other person’s feedback. You’ve got to find out how he feels about the criticism and what he plans to do about it. And you’ve got to find out what kind of help he needs to correct the problem. If you aren’t willing to do that, you’d both be better off if you said nothing.

Number three, ask yourself, “How many times has the person heard the same criticism before?” Think about your previous conversations with this person. Did you tell Joe last week that his work was late? And the week before? Are you becoming an ineffective nag?

More often than not, nagging doesn’t work. The more you nag someone to change his behavior, the more likely he’ll keep on exhibiting the unwanted behavior. Just look at what happens in many homes. Parents can nag their kids about their messy bedrooms, but the nagging seldom motivates the kids to do anything.

Your corrective, constructive feedback should be fairly fresh. It shouldn’t be the same old same old. If your corrections are becoming repetitious, you need to find another way to solve the problem.

The fourth filter or fourth question asks, “Can the person do anything about the problem?” Sometimes yes and sometimes no. But most people are doing the best they can most of the time. Almost no one gets up in the morning and sets a goal for screwing up the day.

Now that doesn’t mean you haven’t had some screwed-up days where everything went wrong. But that wasn’t your goal. You woke up one morning to find a broken alarm clock, a flat tire, and a stuffed-up head. You started the day an hour behind schedule, and you fell further behind as the day progressed. Your computer froze up, and someone took your box of tissues.

Did you do your best that day? Of course you did. It wasn’t the best of another day, but it was the best you could do that day under the circumstances.

Before you criticize someone, make sure she is able to change. Make sure she is able to do something about the problem. If not, your “constructive criticism” is not only frustrating, it is also useless.

I remember serving on a task force to study the police force of a major city. We were to help them with their public relations as well as the efficiency with which they did their jobs.

After several weeks of work, however, we had not accomplished very much. So I decided that we needed a leader. The task force did not have an assigned leader, and I decided I could fill that role.

I was fairly successful. Three of the members of the commission were supportive, and I soon emerged as the leader. But there was one member of the team who blocked every move I made. Nothing I suggested met with her approval. So I asked her what was wrong with my leadership. I needed some feedback.

She said simply, “I decided a long time ago that I would never follow a man who was younger and smaller than I am.”

While her feedback helped me understand her antagonism towards me, there wasn’t much I could do with her feedback. I couldn’t suddenly grow four inches or add ten years. Her feedback did not pass through this fourth filter.

Number five, ask yourself, “Am I sure I am giving this criticism for the other person’s benefit?” In other words, you don’t say it just because it feels good to get it off your chest. And you don’t say it to get even with the other person. It’s got to be good for the other person, or you shouldn’t say it.

When I was a young, brand new professor, Professor Don Nelson modeled this for me. He gave me more negative feedback than anyone else. He would sit in the back of my class and write out two or three pages of critiques on my lectures. He’d tell me to cut this or change that.

But I could listen and not get defensive because I knew it was for my benefit. Don was 20 years my senior, good at what he did, and students loved him. He was doing his best to make me my best.

Before you criticize someone else, make sure the other person knows your motivation or your intention. If he knows you’re trying to help and not hurt him, he’s more likely to listen.

Finally, ask yourself, “What does the other person need the most — criticism or praise?” Some people need to be guided to new behavior, and that ideally, is what helpful criticism does. It points out the ineffectiveness of present behavior as it guides to more productive behavior. Other people simply need to be motivated to do more, and that’s what praise can do.

This is where the art of communication and the art of management come in. You’ve got to decide what’s most likely to work — criticism or praise. And if you guess right, the results are exactly the same. The other person changes his behavior.

Dr. Sidney Simon has given us a powerful tool. Use it. Ask yourself the six questions before you criticize someone else. Then, when you speak, you’ll be more likely to get a hearing than a headache.

Action:  Think of a person you may need to confront or criticize in the near future. Think of her offending behavior and what you’d like to say to her.

Then sit down with these 6 filters. Spend 30 seconds thinking over your answers to each of the 6 questions. In three minutes you’ll be in much better shape to actually give “constructive criticism” — if you decide to say anything at all.