How not to crumble when colleagues criticise

by | Feb 26, 2014 | Blog, Jessica Chivers, Life Behind The Coach, Personal Effectiveness, Workplace Psychology | 0 comments

Strength_weights-300x199I expect you’ve experienced that sicky-lurching-stomach sensation that accompanies a colleague’s unexpected criticism or undermining of you or members of your team. Last year I asked readers of my ‘Flourishing Female’ monthly newsletter about situations/skills they’d like me to explore in 2014; how to ‘be assertive’ and ‘keep it together in the face of criticism’ came up a number of times. Here follows some pointers on how to pre-empt such occasions and how to handle it when it happens.

I can remember one particularly reddening occasion as a 24 year old, when a senior woman – a political animal who seemed uncomfortable demonstrating any positive ‘feminine’ qualities – cut me up and down in a meeting. Looking back I see she was scared (of not being viewed as a ‘heavy-weight’) and that it probably wasn’t personal. I didn’t have a sophisticated come-back in the moment (oh to be as sharp and quick as Paul Merton) and instead I think I shut-up and seethed without knowing quite how to order the chaos in my head. Here’s how I could have handled it.

>> How to handle criticism in the moment


1. Give him or her the floor – and control your body language
If you’re interrupted or challenged publicly (particularly by someone who’s confident and assertive), smile and gesture with open hands that you’re happy to give them airtime. Let them run until they’re done, all the time keep as wide and open posture as possible (taking up space is seen as a sign of power/confidence). Keep your head at a 12 o’clock position (not cocked to one side – which is seen as lower status and more often adopted by women than men).

2. Ask the group
Invite other participants in the meeting to comment on what your ‘challenger’ has said and/or ask whether they’d like to spend time exploring the views just presented or park it for now. Being consensual takes the pressure off you to have a suitable response – particularly if you have been taken by surprise.

3. Adopt a generous mindset – towards the ‘other’ and yourself
Listen to what he or she is saying and look for the positive intent – there will be some. This will help keep you focussed on the person’s ideas rather than how you feel about him or her at this moment. This doesn’t mean throwing your own view away and being completely swayed by theirs (especially if you perceive the ‘challenger’ to be more able/experienced/respected/articulate than you). Hold the belief that you both bring something of value to the discussion.

4. Respond thoughtfully and succinctly
Whilst listening intently, it’s likely you’ll discover a) areas of agreement and b) some ways to re-position your original view to get a better response. Make a brief note as you listen (just as panelists on Question Time do) and if you can build links between their view and yours, so much the better. Use your notes to respond thoughtfully and succinctly once they’ve finished speaking. Think “few words” and say them in a measured tone with a smile on your face.

5. Do what politicians don’t do – hold your tongue
If you can’t quickly analyse what’s been said and present a cogent counter-view or offer a fuller explanation of your own view, be honest. Don’t bluster – say you need some time to reflect/research and that you’d like to pause the discussion and return later. In this way you appear thoughtful, ‘together’ and committed to navigating an appropriate way through the clash. Sit up taller in your chair and/or do something else to increase your presence such as standing up and walking to the flipchart to record the issue.

 6. Let the other person know what was and wasn’t helpful
When you’re both cool, catch them for a spot of informal feedback on what happened. Their sentiments may have been valid, but the way they handled it, not so good. Or vice versa. Any feedback should be delivered in a mindset of ‘making a helpful difference’ – suggest how you’d prefer him or her to handle similar disagreements in the future and just why/how they would be better for both of you. (People are persuaded when something is in their own best interest).

Even better than handling these situations in the moment, is preparing or even pre-empting them before they happen.

>> How to pre-empt or prepare for criticism


1. Consult along the way
Solicit opinions from colleagues who have a stake or say in projects you’re running; reports you’re writing; strategy plans your team is shaping; a client pitch you’re preparing (or whatever it is you’re working on that could be divisive or come in for criticism) as you go along. When people believe their views have been listened to, even if they haven’t been synthesized into the final ‘approach,’ they’re less likely to criticize you and what you propose/deliver. This is true outside work in our personal lives too.

2. Use De Bono’s six thinking hats
The six thinking hats is a useful meeting technique for aligning thinking , temporarily suspending clashes of opinion and bringing people onto the ‘same side’ when exploring a proposed way of doing something. Imagine your team has drafted a strategy for how to launch product A in market Z and you have an internal meeting with the Heads of Sales, Customer Insight, Finance and Operations. As a group you explore/assess the strategy from six perspectives – for example, the yellow ‘hat’ invites everyone to see the positives; the black ‘hat’ the downsides and so on. Click here to read more about the Six Thinking Hats approach. The crucial thing is that everybody adopts the same ‘hat’ at the same time and so you create a sense of ‘togetherness’ in your approach.

3. Get colleagues to give you a grilling
Just as MPs practice how they could respond to possible difficult questions from journalists and the public before they go on The Today Programme, Question Time or any other arena where they’re going to be scrutinized, so can you. Think about what holes others might pick in your approach and get a trusted colleague to mock role-play the situation. Not only will this help you feel more confident about what lies ahead, it’s likely to help you produce work of better quality before you ‘put it out there.’

Any other suggestions for how to pre-empt criticism or handle it when it happens? Please do share – I’ve cobbled this post together in snatched time over the last week and don’t pretend to have covered it all. Your experiences in the box please….

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