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The Soft Skill Art of the Critique

The Soft Skill Art of the Critique

My last three posts have focused on the ability to learn — an incredibly important soft skill, perhaps even more so than self-awareness, since without it there is no ability to grow or improve. This may be the ultimate “the chicken ocritiquer the egg” scenario. What comes first: self-awareness or the ability to learn?

Last week’s post focused on criticism and our ability to handle critical feedback, and dealt mostly with how to handle criticism, or critical feedback, from the receiver’s point of view. At the end of that post I asked, is there really such a thing as positive, or constructive, criticism? This week I try to answer that question.

“if we do our part in framing critical feedback in a positive way, we may minimize negative reactions.

There are things we can control and there are things we cannot. We can’t control how others give critical feedback to us, but we can control how we receive it. Likewise we can control how we give critical feedback, but not how others receive it. That being said, if we do our part in framing critical feedback in a positive way, we may minimize negative reactions.

Daniel Goleman gives a perfect example of this in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (1997, Bantam) when he describes criticism leveled at an engineer by a manager after a product presentation. The manager is quoted as stating, “How long have you been out of graduate school? These specifications are ridiculous. They have no chance of getting past my desk”. These comments destroyed the confidence of the engineer, who had spent weeks with his team compiling the facts, information and presentation. When the manager was asked about his comments, he had no idea of the effect it had on the engineer. For him it was a “throwaway line” and in actual fact he thought the project had promise and just needed more work. Goleman offers this alternative set of comments: “The main difficulty at this stage is that your plan will take too long and so escalate costs. I’d like you to think more about your proposal, especially the design specifications for software development, to see if you can figure out a way to do the same job more quickly”. This is what Goleman called the Artful Critique, which “focuses on what a person has done and can do rather than reading a mark of a character into a job poorly done”. It motivates rather than demotivates, and as Bradberry and Greaves stated, “Whenever you show you care, you can help other people to better understand what is important…” (2005, Fireside).

It is important to give feedback in a way that does not criticize. You can do that by first checking your emotional stance. Be specific and clear about expectations. Also, if you are in the habit of regularly praising others and expressing appreciation for them and what they do, when the need for a difficult conversation arises, you have created the climate in which it is more likely to be heard and appreciated for its true intention. It is what Sparrow and Knight refer to as creating a “climate of supportive response rather than silence or endless criticism” (2006, Jossey-Bass).

So how can you give positive, affirming criticism?

  • Be specific: Talk about a specific example or case. Don’t just say they are doing “something wrong”. Reference what the person is doing well along with what they are not doing well. Go straight to the point; don’t be evasive. If it’s helpful, script it out and have notes to which you can refer.
  • Ask for and be prepared to offer a solution: Lead a discussion on how the other person may be able to resolve the issue or challenge. Listen to them and offer alternatives that may not have occurred to them. Be open to compromise if possible. Look for the second, third or even fourth “right” solution. Whatever the solution is, make sure you cover its expectations and that any timelines are clear.
  • Be present: both criticism and praise are best done in person. If that is not possible, try then for a video link or a phone conversation. Don’t use written electronic media. There is no way an email or written memo can deliver a message with the tone and inflections you intend it to have.
  • Be sensitive: This is another way of being “present”. It is being empathic, listening to understand and being aware of how the other person is interpreting your comments. Be open to “hearing” concerns or issues that are not being spoken aloud and ask questions to draw them out.

If we remember that the reason for all of the above is to grow, learn and improve, and that being either the recipient or the giver provides a way to learn. This gives us a joint solution and a shared responsibility and accountability. Self-awareness or learning — what comes first? Is it really important?


This is the twenty-second in a series of posts exploring Soft Skills and why they are so important to your success in any endeavour.

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John Whitehead, coaches individuals and organizations in becoming more effective by helping them improve their interpersonal communications, emotional intelligence and resiliency.


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