Communicating Effectively: How to Give and Receive Constructive Criticism
 
 

Communicating Effectively: Giving and Receiving Criticism

Giving and/or receiving criticism can be a sensitive situation. People's faces are on the line, as these situations are bereft with face-threatening acts. In determining the best way to approach giving and/or receiving criticism, the idea of communication competence becomes paramount. Researchers have defined communication competence as "communicating in ways that are effective and appropriate for a given situation." Let us deconstruct this definition.

To communicate effectively, means that your message is received as you intended it. Misunderstandings and/or misinterpretations do not occur; rather, your audience fully and clearly understands your intentions.

To communicate appropriately, means that you pay attention to the rules and expectations that apply in the specific communication exchange. Ascertaining appropriate communication for a given situation is not necessarily a simple, easy, or straightforward task. Myriad factors need to be considered in determining what is appropriate for a given situation. These factors might include specific characteristics of your audience, including cultural and co-cultural memberships, mood at the moment, power distance considerations, and power differentials. These considerations also include specific characteristics of the message that you need to send, such as the cultural acceptance of what you have to say, and the sensitivity of the topic.

Communication competence holds five distinct components, all of which need to be considered and adhered to in deeming a message to be delivered with communication competence. These are: self-awareness, adaptability, empathy, cognitive complexity, and ethics.

Self-awareness involves self-monitoring, or being aware of your verbal and nonverbal communication cues, and ensuring they are appropriate for the given situation. As an example, if you are a person who tends to use foul language on a regular basis, you will probably check yourself in certain environments, such as a religious ceremony, or around your girlfriend's parents, and refrain from using foul language during these times.

Adaptability is the ability to adapt to the situation and environment in which you find yourself. This means, for example, that you wouldn't communicate in exactly the same way with your boyfriend's grandparents as you would with your best friends. Each of these situations demands different codes of communication conduct.

Empathy means to put yourself in someone else's shoes during your communications with them. For example, if your friend just got fired, you wouldn't brag about your huge raise at the moment. You don't want to make your friend feel worse than she already does.

Cognitive complexity means you realized certain communication behavior can come from numerous causes. Your friend is being short-tempered with you, for example. Your immediate response might be that she is angry with you for something she thinks you have done. However, cognitive complexity means that you consider other possibilities for her short temper, such as a bad day, relationship problems, or perhaps she doesn't feel well, is hungry, or didn't get enough sleep.

Ethics are rather straightforward, and simply means that we communicate in ways that are ethical. We don't take advantage of others' weakened states to get them to agree to something they otherwise wouldn't.

Effective and appropriate are actually inextricably intertwined, as inappropriate messages are rarely effective. When individuals are proficient in all of the components of effective and appropriate communication, they are considered competent communicators.

These elements become salient in criticism contexts, because these are inherently sensitive conversations. As such, these situations demand competent communication in order for the criticism to be given and received constructively and productively.

Verbal versus written criticism

The codes of competent communication vary slightly, whether the criticism is delivered in verbal or written format. Each of these delivery systems carries characteristics that the other does not. For example, verbal communication contains myriad nonverbal cues; along with spoken words, the impact of the message is immediately apparent to the receiver through nonverbal channels, and the message is fleeting – it goes into the air, and it's gone. Written communication, on the other hand, has minimal nonverbal accompaniments; the sender is not able to gauge the response of the receiver and adjust his or her communication accordingly, because they are not in the same proximity at the same moment, and the message is permanent: it can be read and reread many, many times over. For these reasons, different considerations need to be taken in deeming a message appropriate for a given situation.

Verbal communication has the advantage of gauging the receiver's mood at the moment of sending the message, so the message can be adapted for maximum appropriateness and effectiveness. Written communication lacks this advantage, and, as a result, can be taken more harshly. Verbal communication also has the advantage of the ability to deliver harsh words with soft vocal tones and gentle facial expressions and eye contact, which means that both verbal and nonverbal channels are firing simultaneously and each can support the other to work to save face of the recipient. In verbal communication, if a message is understood in a way unintended, or taken too harshly, adjustments can be made immediately, and the situation can be smoothed. Verbal communication also has the advantage of rephrasing to adapt to a recipient's frame of mind at the moment, to ensure the message is received appropriately. If errors occur, they can be corrected immediately, and unintentionally harsh comments can be nullified with,"Oh, forget I said that." In these ways, verbal communication has some advantages over written communication in delivering criticism.

Written communication has certain advantages as well, however. Generally, a message needs to be written only one time, or certainly very few times, because it is understood that it can be reread many times. Also, by definition, there is a written record of the critique and suggestions for improvement, so neither party must rely on the receiver's memory to ensure the message was properly received. Arguably, written messages need to be phrased with greater politeness and sensitivity to the fact that the sender is delivering a face-threatening act, because there is no option for softening a harsh message with a gentle voice and facial expressions. Further, both sender and receiver can process the criticism in private, which can be beneficial in such an inherently face-threatening act.

GIVING FEEDBACK AND CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

The components we will discuss are: self-image and the needs of the self, intercultural communication, assertive versus hostile communication, politeness theory, nonverbal communication, communication climate, and, to a lesser degree, emotional intelligence and conflict.

Self-Image and Needs of the Self (face needs)

When giving feedback and constructive criticism, it is important to remember that such commentary challenges the needs of the self. Specifically, giving feedback and constructive criticism challenges the recipient's need for control, which is the need to feel that we are playing a decisive role in the course of our relationships. The person receiving the feedback is somewhat at the mercy of the person giving it, and the one receiving feedback has, at that moment, little control over the relationship. The power is in the hands of the person giving the feedback, rather than the one receiving it. Further, the need for inclusion may be threatened, as the recipient may feel socially rejected because his or her performance or behavior is under fire. Recall that the need for inclusion requires that we belong and be included, and is the motivating force that moves us to join social groups.

Further, giving feedback and constructive criticism is inherently a face-threatening act. All three types of face are potentially threatened in this dynamic. Fellowship face, that which reflects our need to have others like and accept us, is threatened because the recipient can easily feel rejected by the one giving the feedback and constructive criticism. Autonomy face, the need for a certain level of independence to avoid impositions by others, and to make our own decisions, is also threatened. This is done because the recipient, at that moment, is not independent, because he or she relies on the feedback of another, is imposed upon by another through receiving the direction of another, and the recipient's own decisions are pointed out as flawed. Finally, competence face, the need to be respected and viewed as competent and intelligent, is threatened when someone points out our errors, inherently suggesting that our own decisions were flawed and our competence and/or intelligence are at stake. Few situations threaten all three types of face at once, but all three types of face are threatened in giving feedback and constructive criticism. For this reason, giving feedback and constructive criticism is a sensitive task, indeed. The successful giver of feedback and constructive criticism will be aware of the face threats to the recipient, and be sensitive to them.

Intercultural Communication

It is useful to bear in mind the concepts of co-culture and perceptual filters, as each of these plays a role in how the recipient will receive the feedback and criticism delivered. Further, if the interaction involves a person from a foreign country, the ideas of high context versus low context, or the degree of directness in a culture that is considered socially appropriate, as well as power distance, are useful to keep in mind. Some people respond better to more indirect messages while others respond more positively to direct, clear, and unambiguous statements. The issue of power is also useful to keep in mind, as giving feedback and constructive criticism successfully may have something to do with whether the recipient is a subordinate, an equal, or a superior. In each case, the giver of feedback and constructive criticism might craft a slightly different message.

Assertive Versus Hostile Communication

In giving feedback and constructive criticism, we have already seen that it is a face-threatening act. This is often enough to trip the triggers of the more sensitive among us, perhaps unleashing hostility from hostile and aggressive individuals. Recall that hostile and verbally aggressive communication is that which seeks to harm the other person through jabs at the self-concept, while assertiveness and argumentativeness stick to the topic, without resorting to personal attacks. At this point, in the interest of space, I would refer the reader to Lesson 4 to review the characteristics of hostile communication. Face-threatening acts, such as giving feedback and constructive criticism, are likely to evoke such communication behaviors from hostile individuals. As a result, extra care should be taken when delivering such sensitive information, particularly when the giver of the feedback and constructive criticism is aware of the recipient's tendency toward hostility.

Politeness Theory

Politeness plays a major role in giving feedback and constructive criticism because, as mentioned, such acts are inherently face-threatening. Recall that positive politeness seeks to communicate that the speaker's wants are in some way similar to the audience's. There is a sense of camaraderie and friendliness in this approach. In giving feedback and constructive criticism, such statements might include, "This is really hard for me, too, so I've found a good approach to be…" or, "I can understand why you did it like this – I would probably have understood it in the same way. I think what is supposed to happen is…" or, "Personally, I really like what you did here. I think it's an excellent approach. Unfortunately I'm not sure this is what's expected this time." Note that in each of these statements, use of the contradictor but is specifically avoided. This is because when but is used (or however, although, on the other hand, or any of its other synonyms), it negates the entire first part of what was said. By definition, the second statement contradicts the first. Therefore, if you say, "I really like what you did here, but…", the listener tends to hear only what comes after the but. For these reasons, and in the interest of saving face as much as possible in these situations, try to avoid using such markers of contradiction.

Addressing negative politeness can also be a good strategy in this situation. Recall that negative politeness seeks to retain the hearer's freedom of action and freedom from imposition through the use of hedging devices (e.g. maybe, could, might), indirectness, questioning, and presenting disagreements as opinions. Examples of this approach to giving feedback and constructive criticism include, "I'm not sure but maybe…" or, "I could be wrong, but I think I understood the requirements to be…" or, "I had a different understanding of the instructions. Can you help me understand your thinking here?" or, "I think it might be clearer to this audience to say…" Such statements help preserve the recipient's face by seeking to hold intact his or her freedom of action and freedom from imposition.

The third politeness strategy is off-record politeness. This is a very indirect feedback strategy, and relies on the recipient's ability to pick up on subtle cues. An example might be in response to, "What do you think about my approach to this?" Off-record politeness would go along the lines of, "You know what a stickler your boss is." Those who are more comfortable with indirect conversational styles might be more comfortable with such an approach.

Any or all of these strategies can, and perhaps should, be employed in such inherently face-threatening acts as giving feedback and constructive criticism.

Nonverbal Communication

In delivering such face-threatening acts as feedback and constructive criticism, it is very useful to attend to the recipient's nonverbal communication to discern cues to how that person is handling the face threats. Subtleties in facial expression (rigid and pinched, or relaxed and expressing a desire for improvement?), voice (tight and strained, or relaxed and open?), and movement and gestures (clenched and tight, or relaxed and loose?) can help the giver navigate the face-threatening terrain and minimize the face threats.

Communication Climate

A positive communication climate is constructed through valuing, or confirming, messages, while a negative communication climate is constructed -- and perpetuated -- through the use of disconfirming messages and, to a lesser extent, disagreeing messages, which are so threatening in this sensitive context. When feedback and constructive criticism is intended to be delivered as positively as possible, be sure to engage in confirming messages, be gentle with the disagreeing messages, and avoid the disconfirming messages in these sensitive exchanges.

Emotional Intelligence and Conflict

The recipient of messages may well resort to use of the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), which makes it especially important for the giver of such messages to practice emotional intelligence, rather than instantaneously (and perhaps irresponsibly) reacting to such harsh messages. Conflict is likely to arise, as there is likely to be an expressed disagreement about the course of events when only one option is possible. Recall the five options for successful conflict management. Consider the power relationship between yourself, the giver of the feedback and constructive criticism, and the recipient of such messages, and select a management approach that best suits the situation.

The giving of feedback and constructive criticism is a delicate task, indeed, that requires immense sensitivity to the needs of the recipient and communication behaviors that respect and attend to those needs.


RECEIVING FEEDBACK AND CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

This article focuses on the receiving end of messages. This discussion will revisit relevant concepts as they relate specifically to receiving feedback and constructive criticism. In particular, we will consider self-image and the needs of the self, intercultural communication, assertive versus hostile communication, emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication, conflict, and communication climate. We will also briefly discuss listening strategies.

Self-Image and Needs of the Self

Feedback and constructive criticism are inherently face-threatening. When you find yourself on the receiving end of such messages, you can do your best to keep in mind that the giver of such messages is not likely intending to threaten your face; rather, it is the situation that demands it. That said, it wouldn't be true to say that some people don't revel in the role of having an opportunity (an excuse?) to threaten someone's face and cause them to lose face. Additional discussions will shed light on strategies for managing these situations.

Intercultural Communication

When on the receiving end of some communications, you would do well to remember that misunderstandings are inherent to communication. Messages are not always intended as received, so it may be best not to take instant offense at what may seem an offensive comment, as your interpretation may not at all have been the sender's intention. Rather, use this opportunity to ask for clarification.

Also, consider that some people value a more direct communication style, while others prefer a less direct style. This can be culturally induced values or personal preferences. Either way, in these highly sensitive exchanges, it is easy to take offense at the delivery style of the message sender if it does not match your own preference. In these instances, try to remember that people have different values about levels of directness, and try not to be offended, because the message may not be delivered in the way you may prefer.

Assertive Versus Hostile Communication

Feedback and constructive criticism are sensitive exchanges, because they are always face-threatening. Therefore, it's easy to take offense and become uncomfortable when on the receiving end of such messages. It is important, however, to remain in the realm of assertive, and refrain from use of hostile communication, so that the most can be gained from these interactions. Feedback and constructive criticism is designed to help the recipient improve in some way. When on the receiving end, it is always useful to remember the heart of this exchange.

Sometimes, the giver of messages is not able to refrain from hostile communication and remain within the realm of the assertive.This can be challenging. In these cases, it may be especially important to remain assertive so that the underlying messages can be properly received and your work can be improved in accordance with the direction given.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is particularly important to practice when receiving feedback and constructive criticism, because these exchanges can be so emotionally loaded. Emotional arousal is easy, due to the face threats in these situations, and anger -- along with a host of other hostile emotions -- can quickly escalate. Practicing the three phases of emotional intelligence is paramount to a pleasant exchange, especially in the face of escalating hostile emotions. Further, it is highly useful to verbalize emotions and confusion when you experience it, rather than express it nonverbally. Saying something like, "I'm starting to get offended. Are you saying…?" is much more productive than expressing irritation in other, nonverbal, ways.

Nonverbal Communication

At times, the giver of feedback and constructive criticism loads the message with a host of hostile nonverbal cues. These can include expressions of irritation, exasperation, or contempt through vocal tone, facial expressions, and/or body movements and gestures. In order to actually hear the message, it's important for the recipient to wade through this mass of potentially negative messages to hear the core of the message being sent. At times this requires somewhat of a thick skin, but more than likely the underlying message the sender is trying to express carries some degree of validity. If you get distracted by the harsh, nonverbal cues, you won't hear the rich advice.

Conflict

When on the receiving end of feedback and constructive criticism, it is especially important to remember the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – and avoid them. Resist any temptations to be critical or contemptuous of the message-sender, to be defensive of your work, and to shut down and check out, otherwise known as stonewalling. Believe it or not, the message-sender is trying to help you. Don't make that person's job more difficult by resisting the advice being offered.

Also it is always a good idea to try to find the most appropriate technique for managing conflict. At times, depending on the situation, simply complying with the advice-giver's requests will be your best bet --otherwise known as avoiding conflict. At other times, holding your ground will serve you well, otherwise known as competing. Whichever strategy you choose, should be chosen thoughtfully and mindful of the advice-giver and the advice given.

Communication Climate

It is important to always contribute to a positive communication climate by sending confirming messages, even in the face of disconfirming messages. Show the message-sender that you value him or her, and the input given, by sending messages that demonstrate this.

Listening

A discussion of receiving feedback and constructive criticism merits a brief discussion on listening skills.

Without launching into a full discussion of this topic, some points are worth mentioning. Poor listening practices should be avoided, and active listening should be employed, especially in this situation. Poor listening practices include pseudo-listening, wherein the listener pretends to be listening by making eye contact, nodding, and utterances that indicate s/he is listening; selective listening, which means the listener hears only the parts s/he wants to hear and ignores the rest; closed-mindedness, which is simply not hearing anything with which the listener disagrees; stage-hogging, where the listener actually does most of the talking; defensive listening, wherein the listener merely listens for points with which to disagree; competitive interrupting, which uses interruptions to take control of the conversation; and glazing over, which means you essentially "check out." These practices are not conducive to a productive feedback and constructive criticism session.

Instead of practicing poor listening behaviors, the listener can engage in more productive ones. These include back channeling, where the listener nods, offers facial expressions, and short verbal utterances such as, "I understand," to let the speaker know the listener is paying attention; paraphrasing, which is restating in your own words what the speaker has said to show that you understand; empathizing, which conveys to the speaker that you share his or her feelings on the topic; supporting, which expresses agreement with the speaker; analyzing, which provides your own perspective on what the speaker has said; and advising, which communicates advice to the speaker about what s/he should think, feel or do, and which may be the least relevant to a discussion of receiving feedback and constructive criticism.

A session of feedback and constructive criticism may not be the most fun conversation to engage in, but it is an important one. The merits of the advice the speaker is attempting to offer should be given full attention.

It is not easy to receive feedback and constructive criticism, especially because those who send such messages are not always sensitive to the face threats and difficulty of receiving such messages. However, feedback and constructive criticism are extremely important in improving the quality of your work, behavior, performance, or whatever topic or area is being discussed. Learning to take such commentary in stride, and apply the essence of the messages, can yield vastly satisfying results.

 
 
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