Somebody told me that I was very poor at taking criticism, but I quickly pointed out that they were quite wrong. This little jest reveals a truth: we don’t like being criticized. We can easily become defensive and this makes it difficult for us to take on board the feedback that we near to hear. The same applies to the people we deal with at home, in social situations or in the office. But how can you criticize without upsetting the other person?

Two Stars and a Wish

As parents, friends or bosses we often have to give critical feedback, so how can we do this in a way that does not antagonize the other person but instead helps them to improve? Here is a method that works well in nearly all circumstances – it’s called two stars and a wish. Let’s say that little Johnny has terrible writing. His teacher could criticize this and tell him to work on it. Or she could say something like this: “Johnny, your stories are very interesting and you describe the characters really well. But I wish that I could read your writing more easily.” She starts with two elements of praise (and we all like to hear that) and then she frames the criticism in an ‘I wish’ form rather than a ‘You must’ form. Johnny feels good about the feedback and learns a way to make his stories even better.

Similarly, say you have to chastise a colleague or subordinate at work for regularly submitting reports late. Most managers would say something like: “Jane, your last three reports have been late. Can you please get them to me on time from now on.” Using two stars and a wish you might say, “Jane, your reports are really accurate and useful to me, but I do wish that you would get them to me on time. That would really help.” Which approach do you think is more likely to be accepted by Jane and persuade her to change? The positive feedback acts like sugar on the pill of the criticism and makes it much easier to swallow.

Explain the Impact

Another tip on giving feedback is to explain the impact of the behavior. In the last example you could expand the comment as follows: “Jane, your reports are really accurate and useful to me. They are very important because they help the company make accurate stock and purchasing decisions. But I do wish that you would get them to me on time because when they are late it puts me in a difficult position in the weekly management meetings and makes it hard for the team to make the right buying decisions.” By explaining the consequences of Jane’s conduct, you give her a more powerful reason to change than if you just asked her.

Give Praise

Similarly, you should describe the impact when you give positive feedback. As a boss you should give praise whenever you can. It is great to get the chance to say, “Great work, Jim!” But it is even better to expand on it and say, “Great work, Jim. There was a risk that we would lose that customer but the way you handled the situation has turned that around completely.” Many people feel bashful about praising a colleague but it is a very positive thing to do and is as simple as saying, “I thought you raised some really good points in the meeting and you helped us focus on the key issue of customer satisfaction.”

The next time you feel that you have to criticize someone, start by giving them some praise. Try the two stars and a wish approach – it will lead to a better result for them and for you.

Featured photo credit: Ed Yourdan via flickr.com

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