How to keep negative criticism from becoming destructive

Do you ever feel like lashing out? Do you ever want to let someone really know how ticked off you are or how bad their behavior is?

Of course, you do. You’re human.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. One of my friends feels that way about the IRS. He says, “What gets me is that estimated tax return. You have to guess how much you’re going to 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 going to make, let them guess who sent it.”

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. Here’s what I recommend.

►1. Recognize the potential harm in inappropriate negative criticism.

Negative criticism is potentially the most dangerous form of communication on Earth, if it’s not done well. It can damage 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.

To make matters worse, inappropriate negative criticism has amazing staying power, sometimes lasting a lifetime. And you know what I’m talking about. You can recall the nasty nicknames you were called back in grade school many years ago, and you can still remember the put-down comment made on a performance review some ten years ago. And sometimes those critical remarks keep on cutting, hurting, and destroying you.

So I’m simply cautioning you. If you’re going to give negative criticism, you’d better know what you’re doing.

As educator and author Scott Snair puts it, “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.”

Good advice.

►2. Combine honesty with tact.

About this time, you may be saying, “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 behavior is not acceptable. Some people need to change some things. Sometimes you simply have to speak up and speak out some criticism.

What you should do is start with an accurate definition of honesty. Some ineffective communicators defend their hurting, negative criticism by proudly saying “I’m just being honest with you.”

Well let’s get real. Any jerk can be “honest.” All that takes is a bit of guts and a shameless disregard for the other person’s feelings.

An effectively “honest” person shares the good and the bad news somewhat equally. An effectively “honest” person is truthful and tactful at the same time. And an effectively honest person is welcomed rather than dreaded when he says, “I need to be honest with you.”

Hopefully that is how people are responding to you, your honesty, and your occasional criticism. If not, make sure you follow my next points below.

►3. Ask “What did you like about what you did?”

I learned this and the next two questions from teaching instructor Mamie Porter. It was her job to sit in the back of the classroom and observe teachers and then give them feedback that would help them improve their instructional skills.

Mamie knew that when she sat in an instructor’s class, her presence made them highly self-conscious. So she let them know ahead of time exactly what they could expect. She assured them she had no intention of embarrassing them or passing judgment. Instead, her part was purely to facilitate their own reflections and self-evaluation. She explained that after they finished teaching, she would pose three simple questions.

The first question was, “What did you like about what you did?” Years of experience had shown Mamie that most people are more prone to self-criticize than self-praise. Looking first at what they liked about their teaching was a great starting point. It quieted the teacher’s inner critic, momentarily, and got them thinking about what they were doing right. It reinforced their strengths.

From there, their discussion went to …

►4. Ask “If you got a second chance, what would you do differently?”

On the surface Mamie’s second question sounds fairly standard. What makes this question especially effective is that it invites the other person to self-assess from the standpoint of getting a second chance. It gives the discussion a future-focused orientation rather than a finger pointing at past screw ups.

There’s one other very cool benefit in this question. People don’t argue with their own data. In other words, when you or I point out someone’s flaw, they may get defensive or deny the truth in our feedback. But when they say it, when they talk about how their behavior could be better, they own it and tend to do something about it.

Mamie saved her best question for last.

►5. Ask “Where could you use a hand?”

The beauty of this question is that it changes the burden in the discussion. Instead of telling the other person what they should do differently, you invite the other person to ask for help. It’s a subtle but powerful game changer.

You see, when you tell someone to do something, their ears often close. But when they ask you for help, their ears open up.

Of course there are some people who will never ask for help … who don’t even see where, why, or how they should change anything. Perhaps they’re in denial.

For those people, I change the question slightly. I ask them, “Would you be open to some feedback?” From my experience, most people say “yes.” And their simple “yes” grants me permission to give the honest and tactful feedback we discussed above.

The Bible says the power of life and death are to be found in the tongue. Please make sure you’re using your tongue to bring about life and not death through criticism.