Hearing the words, “We need to talk” from a boss, partner or friend sends you into panic mode. If you hate hearing about the things you’ve done wrong and the mistakes you’ve made, you’re not alone. But it’s a catch-22. We don’t like being criticized, but honest feedback is one of the most valuable tools we have for self-improvement.
Criticism hurts for a reason, and the explanation lies in neuroscience. In order to keep us alive, our brains have evolved to react much more strongly to negative things. The brain has evolved this way for a good reason: to keep us safe. Just as 20,000 years ago, the brain was trying to keep hunter-gatherers safe from warring tribes, your brain reacts the same way to a critical comment from your spouse or boss.
But just because that negative feedback hurts, should your partner have avoided giving it? And should you avoid doing the same?
No way—as long as you put a little bit of thought into it.
Research from the University of Michigan shows that the right dose of constructive criticism is actually one of the biggest factors in predicting a high-performing team. And research from John Gottman, Ph.D., a top relationship researcher, also found there’s a sweet spot for how much criticism helps keep relationships alive.
Both teams of researchers arrived at a similar conclusion: In order to keep a relationship or work team performing well, five or six positive interactions were needed for every one criticism or negative interaction.
Criticism, when delivered thoughtfully, helps teams perform better and helps people improve their behavior. It also wakes people up and makes them realize they can’t be complacent. If people on your team are doing a terrible job, they deserve to know so they can improve their work. And if your partner is acting in a way that upsets you, he or she should know why.
Keeping this research in mind, here are a few tips for delivering criticism.
• Think about your motives.
Are you criticizing someone because you’re in a bad mood or you want to put him or her down? Stop, take a deep breath and walk away. Criticism based on anger and contempt will only lead to destruction of the relationship.
• Never attack the person.
Instead, criticize the action. Do your best to separate the behavior and the person. Don’t attack the person’s character; focus on the behavior. This allows the person to consider the feedback without feeling as defensive.
• Deliver one piece of criticism at a time.
The late Clifford Nass, Ph.D., a researcher at Stanford University, discovered that people can take in only one critical comment at a time. Pick only the most important thing to share.