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Communication Without Criticism: Tips for HR Professionals

written by: Michelle Shuler Key•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 2/9/2011

Communicating an issue to an employee can be a nerve-wracking experience. No one likes to be wrong, and most like being called out on mistakes even less. Keep emotions from derailing your message by mastering the art of communication without criticism.

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    Confront the Problem, Not the Person

    Before you pick up the phone or send that e-mail, take a moment alone. Write down the issue as you see it. For example:

    "Bob is always late."

    Now that you have established the core information to be communicated, how do you soften the words and leave the message intact? Start by defining the problems created by the issue.

    "When Bob is late his morning reports do not get distributed in time, causing delays in the office."

    Now that you have a fact-based statement to work with, turn it into communication without criticism by phrasing it in a way that emphasizes Bob's value and works toward a solution. Remember, you are not here to scold Bob for his chronic lateness, but to overcome an issue that is delaying work in your office.

    "Bob, your morning reports are always polished and accurate, and your coworkers count on them to start the day. Unfortunately that means when you are late everyone notices your absence. Is there anything we can do to help you arrive by nine every morning?"

    The underlying message Bob receives from this statement is one of importance and responsibility, which are far better motivators than fear or embarrassment. Offering help reassures Bob that he is needed in the office, rather than making him feel threatened and criticized.

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    The Importance of Body Language

    Communication without criticism, starts the moment the employee steps into your office. Ask the employee to be seated, and be sure to sit down yourself. Sometimes when in a position of authority the inclination is to stand, but placing yourself physically above someone in a confrontation, is the equivalent of a bear rising to his hind legs when he perceives a threat. What you are communicating is not only a statement of power, but of physical intimidation.

    Other aggressive gestures to avoid include:

    • Clenching your jaw or otherwise holding a stern facial expressionphoto 22850 20101118 .
    • Tightly clasping or wringing your hands.
    • Placing your hands on your hips.
    • Pointing your finger at the employee.

    On the other end of the spectrum, it is important not to appear too casual or your message may not have the desired impact. Overly casual gestures to avoid include:

    • Fiddling with pens or other items on your desk.
    • Leaning on your desk or placing your chin in your hand.
    • Leaning back in your chair while clasping your hands behind your head.

    Instead, sit straight up in your chair and give direct eye contact while stating your issue. You can diffuse tension by tilting your head to the side slightly, while making more confrontational statements. As long as you maintain eye contact, you preserve the seriousness of your message, but a sympathetic head tilt helps take the "bite" out of your words.

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    Mental Preparation

    Even with the right body language and well-phrased critiques, your tone of voice can still make anger or frustration obvious. Awareness of your emotions is your most powerful tool for keeping things calm and reasonable. Strive for an overall neutral tone, and be sure to avoid:

    • Internalizing the issue, even if you are one of those personally affected. Allowing your own feelings to come to the surface can make anger evident in your voice. Your message will get lost behind a scolding tone, putting the employee on the defensive.
    • False empathy. Perceptive employees see through this behavior and not only tune you out in the short term, but lose trust and respect for you over the long term.

    Once you have decided what you plan to say and how you will say it, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself before meeting with the employee. Your strongest tool for communication without criticism is your own emotional equilibrium.

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    Hoover, John and Roger DiSilvestro. (2005). The Art of Constructive Confrontation: How to Achieve More Accountability with Less Conflict. Wiley. 047171853X, 978-0471718536

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