The Most Dangerous Form Of Communication On Earth

“It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.”
Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister

Sometimes you just feel like lashing out. Especially around tax season. That’s why Jimmy Edmondson says, “What gets me is that estimated tax return. You have to guess how much you’re gonna make. You have to fill it out, fix it up, sign it, send it in. I sent mine in last week. I didn’t sign it. If I have to guess how much I’m gonna make, let them guess who sent it.”

Of course, that may not be the wisest or most mature response, but you can probably empathize with the feeling. Sometimes you just feel like saying something negative or critical.

BUT it’s critically important that you do it right … because negative criticism is the most dangerous form of communication on Earth. Not done well, it can kill a person emotionally, intellectually, motivationally, and spiritually. And one poorly timed or poorly phrased comment can kill off a person’s energy and potential … sometimes forever.

Educator and author Scott Snair says it very well. He says, “I like the analogy about the nails in the wood fence. That is, when we hurt someone, it’s like driving a nail into a fence. If we apologize and make amends, it’s like removing the nail. Yes, the nail is gone, but the hole will always be there. It is better not to drive in the nail in the first place.”

So WHAT should you do when someone needs some negative feedback? After all, there are times on the job and at home when people need to know their errors and shortcomings.

And HOW can you give the negative feedback without hurting the other person? A lot of it comes down to conscious, careful thinking before you speak … rather than blurt out your comments with so-called “blunt honesty.” Put your critical comments through some filters first, as Dr. Sidney Simon suggests in his book “Negative Criticism and What You Can Do about It.”

Based on Simon’s work and my work over the last many years, I urge you to go through these six filters … or ask yourself these six questions … BEFORE you criticize somebody else. If you do that, if you get a “yes” answer to all six questions, you’ll be giving “constructive criticism” rather than “constrictive criticism.”

1. Are you sure the person NEEDS negative feedback more than positive encouragement?

Good, healthy, constructive criticism is nothing more than guidance and coaching. And we all need that once in a while. We need to learn from our mistakes and develop our potential.

Unfortunately, some criticism is discouraging rather than encouraging. It may come out as a snide remark, such as the sign I saw posted in a car dealership. It asked, “The best way to get back on your feet? Miss a car payment.”

Or it comes out with the wrong tone of voice. Stanley Horowitz acknowledged that when he said, “Nothing lowers the level of conversation more than raising the voice.”

So you have to ask yourself what is more likely to change the other person … a negative comment that redirects his behavior or a positive comment that motivates better behavior. Some of the people in your life have low self-esteem, and they desperately need to hear the positive.

2. Are you sure you’re giving the negative feedback to truly HELP the other person?

Even though there have been a number of popular books that tell you to “look out for #1” or “win through intimidation,” that is not the motivation behind constructive criticism.

If you want the other person to really listen to you, she needs to know that you’re on her side, that you’re sharing the negative feedback because you care about her, her life, her job, and/or her future.

I thought one teacher did that in a rather creative way when she caught one of the school jocks goofing off in her class. She told him he would be facing detention after school if he didn’t shape up. “But I have baseball practice” the jock protested.

“Listen Bill,” she replied. “You have a choice of which bat you’re going to spend the afternoon with. Choose wisely.”

3. Are you sure you’re feedback is FRESH?

If you give someone the same piece of negative feedback over and over again … over a period of time … it should be obvious that your approach isn’t working. In fact, the more you nag someone, the greater the chances are that he’ll keep on doing what you don’t want.

4. Are you sure the other person is ABLE to change the behavior you’re criticizing?

It’s easy to assume that the other person could change if he really wanted to. That’s not always the case. Just telling someone that what he is doing is not good enough may not be enough to bring about the change you desire.

Such was the case with one little girl who was watching her parents dress for a party. When she saw her dad donning his tuxedo, she warned, “Daddy, you shouldn’t wear that suit.”

“And why not, darling?” Dad asked. His daughter replied, “You know that it always gives you a headache the next morning.”

In addition to the negative feedback you give someone, you may also need to give the other person some training and motivation … or he may not even be capable of making the changes you suggest.

5. Are you willing to NEGOTIATE a solution?

Some people just give their negative criticism or say their piece and walk away. I see that as vengeful dumping rather than constructive conflict resolution.

Check your attitude. Are you willing to work with the other person to find a mutually satisfactory solution?

Learn to listen to both sides of an issue … as if you were a counselor or mediator. When you do that, you’ll find yourself responding in a way that will bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict much more quickly.

For example, in response to an employee’s request for a raise, you might say, “On the one hand, I understand you really need a raise and deserve a raise. On the other hand, I represent the company, whose funds are very scarce at this time. Is there a way that we can work on your compensation package that does not involve cash?”

In other words, instead of merely criticizing someone, involve him or her in the discussion to find a mutually acceptable agreement.

6. Are you sure the other person is READY to receive your criticism?

Maybe the last thing the other person wants to hear … or can handle … at a particular time is a piece of criticism. The other person’s cup may be too full to take in anything else.

If that’s the case, when she hears criticism, she may tune you out, get defensive, or even bring up some of your faults … none of which helps anything. Maybe the other person has had a terrible day … with a flat tire on the way to work and a computer crash that caused her to fall even further behind in her work. Maybe the last thing she can handle is a piece of your “constructive criticism.”

If that’s the case, start the conversation with some “mood sampling.” Ask how her day is going. Comment on the fact that she seems upset or frazzled. More often than not, she’ll be surprised by your kind gesture, will appreciate your interest, and calm down a bit.

After a couple of minutes of work or non-work discussion and rapport building, ask her when it might be a good time to talk about another issue. In other words, find out when she’s READY to receive your criticism and make some changes.

So there you have it … 6 critical questions you need to ask yourself BEFORE you criticize anybody else. Let these questions filter out the destructive elements in your criticism so what comes is truly constructive, helpful, and non-defense producing. They’ll tell you HOW to do it right.

But in conclusion, let me give you a shorthand version on WHEN you should give the negative criticism. I refer to a proverb I learned when I was speaking overseas. My client said a wise person has three gates in front of his mouth, each staffed by a gatekeeper. Before the gates open … allowing you to speak your critical remark … each gatekeeper asks you a question. If you answer each question with a “yes,” the gates open and you can criticize. If you answer any questions with a “no,” the gates remain closed and so should you.

The three questions are as follows: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

Action:  Write these last 3 questions on a card. Carry it with you for a month. And every time you’re about to open your mouth and make a negative comment, make sure you answer “yes” to all three questions.