Giving and receivingCriticism

Nov. 1, 2003
Most people would rather fight a pit bull than give — or receive — criticism. But with the right tools, criticism can be an effective means to enhance and improve both your professional and your personal relationships.

by Stanley Weiss, DDS, FAGD, MS

For many people, giving or receiving criticism is akin to torture. Most people would rather fight a pit bull than engage in this uncomfortable but necessary process. Criticism is such an emotionally charged issue that code words have developed to soften the blow, such as "feedback" or "constructive criticism." The difficulty arises because most people perceive criticism as negative. It's seen inherently as a disapproval and as a demand to change certain behavior.

The person receiving criticism usually exhibits resistance and denial, becomes defensive and angry, and tends to lash out and attack. This is true even when the criticism is presented lovingly and effectively. The person giving the criticism may have good intentions to heal, to improve, or to enhance the relationship. But a person giving criticism may also have bad intentions, like attacking, harassing, hurting, embarrassing, belittling, or exacting revenge from the recipient.

The good news is that giving or receiving criticism is a skill that can be mastered like any other skill. However, it's important that we not allow other personal aspects like anger, anxiety, hostility, or depression to intrude upon this task.

As with so many things that concern communication and relationships, what you say isn't as important as how you say it. Words don't necessarily hurt, although they certainly can. It is the manner in which the words and feelings are expressed. Giving criticism should involve a lot of thought and preparation. This includes your motivation for criticizing, your ability to do it lovingly, effectively, and positively, your objective in presenting the criticism, the behavioral changes you are seeking, and your assessment as to whether the person is capable of effecting these changes and whether they are realistic.

Giving and receiving criticism is an integral part of life, both professionally and personally. Both our offices and our homes are fertile grounds for criticism, but it's a skill that many people simply do not possess. Criticism occurs in the office, where dentists have the upper hand simply because they are the employers and possess the power. At home, or in a relationship, there is, hopefully, an equality of power and influence between two or more individuals. With respect to children, the power is in favor of the parents. However, there are many families that do not exercise this power or at least not effectively. In some families, "the inmates are running the asylum."

Regardless of who wields the most power, criticism should be accomplished lovingly, effectively, and nonthreateningly. The object of criticism is to make things better, not worse; to resolve issues, not aggravate them; to dissipate anger, not exacerbate it; to heal; and to have your life run smoothly and enjoyably, both in the office and at home.

Dentists have two families: The one in the office and the one at home. Both "families" possess the potential for loving and intimate relationships. And both families should be treated with respect. Respect in this instance means giving and receiving criticism gracefully.

Failing to criticize or neglecting to confront an incendiary situation is as disastrous as doing it poorly. Avoiding or ignoring an issue completely will come back to haunt you, your office family, and your family at home, and generally will make life miserable for you.

In dealing with communication of any kind, or any situation, how you present yourself to the other party is what you will receive in return. Your attitude will dictate, to a degree, the other person's response to you and your criticism. If you are nasty, sarcastic, cruel, condescending, belittling, or hostile, this will definitely cause a similar response.

If, on the other hand, you are loving, caring, and present yourself and your criticism appropriately, you are more likely to engender that type of response. However, sometimes this is not valid simply because you cannot control someone else's attitude.

Criticism should not be rendered when you are angry. Cool off first, or you will make the situation worse, not better. You can take an hour or even a day if that is what you need to calm down. Don't neglect the issues or sweep them under the carpet. Don't hold onto the notion that "he or she will change." Don't be afraid of bringing up any issue, even a contentious one, just because you fear the consequences. If you cannot or will not bring up a particular issue, there is no hope for improving it. It will fester and you will internalize the anger, which definitely will affect you emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Failure to discuss a volatile issue can result in hypertension, anxiety, irritability, and a diminution of your ability to be affectionate and loving. Communication suffers, which leads to assumptions, many of which may prove to be incorrect. This can be fatal to any relationship.

When giving criticism, pick an appropriate time and place. Whether it's at home or in the office, it should be done privately, where you and the other party can be alone so that no one else is privy to the conversation. There should be no distractions, interruptions, or time limits because you want to discuss the issue fully in order to resolve it. It's acceptable to postpone a discussion if the ideal place and time cannot be found. It's important that the circumstances are as ideal as possible, but waiting for the right time and place does not mean that it's OK to avoid or drop the discussion altogether. This would be to the detriment of both parties. Mutual respect and courtesy are essential. Both parties should be calm, relaxed, and free of anger, which will create a climate where each person is amenable to hearing the other and is receptive to the criticism.

Limit your criticism to one issue. Don't use a scattergun approach where you bring up everything but the kitchen sink. It takes a great deal of energy to fully discuss one issue, let alone a multitude of issues. Your anger may have been festering for a long time, but dealing successfully with one issue will enable you to build on that success when dealing with future issues.

Remember to focus your criticism on the behavior and not the person. You do not want to solve one problem and then create another. Criticizing the person, especially with children, can damage self-esteem, self-respect, and self-confidence.

Attempt to put criticism within a positive and loving framework and do so with respect and caring, both verbally and nonverbally. It is easier to accept criticism if the tenor of the discussion is positive and respectful rather than negative and destructive. If the person being criticized feels that you are unloading on him or her, you will encounter a great deal of resistance and absolutely nothing will be accomplished.

Prior to giving criticism, it is important to check your perceptions of what happened to ensure that they are valid. Also examine what you believe to be the other party's motives. This will allow you to ascertain what transpired and why, and to avoid theories and incorrect assumptions.

To present yourself and your criticism in a positive and non-threatening manner, use an "I message" instead of a "you message." With an "I message," the focus is on your feelings and won't be interpreted as accusatory or threatening. "You messages" are accusatory, provocative, and inflammatory. The listener feels attacked and immediately becomes defensive, stops listening, and starts counterattacking. End of communication; end of resolution.

Use appropriate body language. It's impossible not to communicate; we do it all the time. Even when you are silent, your body is speaking volumes. Mixed messages — where what you are saying conflicts with your body language — force the recipient to hone in on body language. Therefore, if you wish for your verbal message to be received and to be convincing, your body language must reinforce your verbal message.

Body language consists of posture, facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, space, and touching. Your voice and its pitch, rhythm, intensity, and volume also influence how your message will be received.

When giving criticism, don't dredge up the past. Some people have a tendency, once they get rolling, to bring up issues that have been repressed, often out of a desire for revenge. The aggrieved person feels the need to lash out. This is understandable, since the issues have been festering for a long time. However, not only will this not help, it will be a hindrance. Bringing up issues from the past will overwhelm the process, and the issues, in all likelihood, will be cloudy after such a long time. Obviously, the ideal is to raise an issue as it happens, or shortly thereafter.

Some of the many things that people do when in a heated discussion are blaming, cursing, making threats, making derogatory references, using labels, making generalizations, stereotyping, and playing therapist. All of these devices have the potential of starting World War III. Avoid them at all cost. If you just can't help yourself and feel compelled to use any of these, it's a sign that you are still too angry or hostile to engage in a discussion.

If you are the object of criticism, try to examine the behavior for which you are being criticized. And listen — really listen. Assimilate what is being said, and remember that the discussion is designed to make things better and enhance the relationship. Ask yourself if the role that you played in this incident, as it has been presented to you, is, in fact, valid. Ask yourself what is your responsibility for what happened. Use a little self-reflection to understand what happened and why. If you are upset with the person giving the criticism, for any reason, raise that issue at a later time.

Place yourself in the other person's shoes. Don't forget that most people's perceptions are unconscious, are fully developed at a young age, are the direct result of "family systems," and are unlikely to change. Compromise may be needed to make peace unless one or both parties admit culpability. Perception is neither right or wrong; it just is.

Respond to criticism constructively, without becoming defensive or abusive, and without putting the other person down. Do not take the criticism personally. View it as a loving attempt to resolve an issue to make your relationship better between the two of you.

Giving and receiving criticism is an essential part of communication. It's vital to learn to do it effectively to keep your office family running smoothly and productively, and to keep your family life at home happy and loving. The challenge facing you every day is dealing effectively with people in all aspects of your life. This entails communicating criticism. It also includes communicating love. You must be adept at both.

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