Anyone who has watched American Idol or any of the other popular talent shows probably has at times cringed at some of the feedback offered contestants. After all, most of them are young adults and to be told their voices sound like fingernails on a blackboard cannot be the most heartening experience.
“But I’ve wanted this my whole l-i-i-fe,” wails a 15-year-old contestant who has been rejected by judges.
Ahem. Well, 15 years of desiring something seems a little trivial to those who have been old enough to vote for several years, but that doesn’t lessen the empathy we may feel over the sting of criticism.
Of course, there may be only one thing worse than receiving criticism.
While Simon Cowell may have no problem telling someone they’re “simply atrocious,” the truth is most of us don’t want to scar someone for life when offering feedback. We don’t want to have someone break down and cry or lunge for our throats because we’ve done such a poor job of offering necessary – or required – criticism.
Sometime in your career you’re going to be required to give feedback, whether it’s a colleague asking for your opinion on a project or as a manager giving a formal performance evaluation. How you offer that feedback can set the tone for your relationship with that other person, and your feedback skills may even be used to judge you.
Here’s how to offer criticism or feedback without being cruel:
• Understand your mood. If you’ve just spent two hours in rush hour traffic or discovered your kid got caught skipping school, it’s probably not the best time to offer feedback to someone. A better bet would be to wait until your breathing and blood pressure return to normal. Reschedule a feedback session if needed since it’s not fair to the other person to be on the receiving end of your bad mood.
• Be accommodating. Ask the person receiving the feedback how he would like to receive it, if it’s possible to give him a choice. Would he prefer email or a private face-to-face conversation? Just trying to show you’re thinking of the other person sets a better tone from the get-go.
• Have your facts straight. It’s easy to read someone the riot act if you were told she was rude to an important customer. But don’t jump to conclusions before you give the worker a chance to tell her side of the story and talk to other people present during the incident, if possible. Nothing will lose you respect faster than leveling false accusations — or make you feel like a bigger fool.
• Determine your goals. Don’t kid yourself into believing the reason you told a co-worker his presentation was “flat” was because you were being honest, when in reality you’re still miffed he got a promotion you wanted. Saying you’re just being “authentic” or “transparent” with criticism is a crock when your true motive is to hurt the other person or to try to call attention to yourself with your brash words.
• Be specific. Feedback often can spiral out of control when you start having kitchen sink discussions. That means you drag up incidents that were resolved long ago. Stick to the specifics about current subjects and don’t talk about how you “feel” the person isn’t doing the job correctly or other vague and general comments. Stick to the behavior that’s the problem.
• Agree on a goal. Before you part, reach a decision with the person about what can be done to correct a problem or improve a situation. Let the person offer ideas, and take those into account when determining a goal.
When offering criticism, don’t rehash your complaints over and over. Stick to your agenda, listen carefully to the other person and offer encouragement that you believe things will get better. That way both of you can emerge from the conversation with a better understanding and relationship.