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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 or 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.

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?

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?


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