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How To Give Criticism While Still Being Uplifting

Criticism can be uncomfortable, not only for the receiver but also for the one giving the feedback. In the past, I was always afraid and uncomfortable when it came to giving feedback to someone outside of written notes or quick edits to their writing. When I became a manager in retail, I was in a constant state of panic because I did not know how to uplift my team while telling them the corrections that were needed. Then, I was introduced to DEAR MAN as a way to have uncomfortable conversations effectively while respecting the other person and myself. 

Originally created as part of a type of therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), this skill is often used to have difficult relationship conversations in family or couple’s sessions. Its sole purpose is to ask for a change in behavior from another person with dignity and, when possible, flexibility. However, I realized there are ways to apply this technique outside of personal lives and bring it into the classroom and office. Now, I am dedicated to sharing this skill with others.

The Problem

For the sake of showing you how to use the skill, I am going to use a real-ish life example of doughnuts in the breakroom. Let’s imagine that you were in the middle of a meeting when the doughnuts arrived and you had skipped breakfast that day knowing that there would be delicious doughnuts waiting for you. When you finish your meeting, you go into the breakroom and see your teammate munching on the last doughnut. You ask if there were any more and they respond by saying that there weren’t and that they were so delicious that your teammate could not resist having a second. Your stomach growls as you become upset. How are you going to handle this while hangry?

The Skill

DEAR MAN breaks down into two different parts, the first being what you do and the second being how you do it. DEAR basically focuses on making sure that the way that you express your feedback is respectful and without blame while still sharing your feelings. While feelings are often a strange concept in the professional and educational sectors, they are still there and deserve to be expressed healthily. Here is how the first part breaks down:

  • Describe – What is going on that is making you upset or unable to complete your goal? Be detailed but not exaggerated. A great example of this could be “I didn’t eat breakfast this morning knowing that there would be doughnuts in the office today. When I went to grab one, I saw you eating your second when I didn’t get to have one.”
  • Express – Tell the other person how this makes you feel and the consequences of the situation. Do not put blame, do not shame, but explain your view. In professional situations, explain the ways that it affects you or the team. Following the same example as above, you could expand on it by saying, “I feel really mad and hungry. When I went into the staff meeting, I had a hard time concentrating because I was so hungry and missed an opportunity to discuss a concern of ours about that project.”
  • Assert – Set your boundaries. It is crucial that you create a boundary that is realistic but also open to the possibility to compromise in certain situations. This could look like, “Next time we have doughnuts in the office, can you please check with everyone before taking a second doughnut? Or, maybe bring some extras so there is more for those who want to have seconds.” 
  • Reinforce – Explain why this new boundary would benefit the other person as well. This gives the other person a chance to have some stake in the outcome of the conversation. In this case, it could look something like this, “We could put up a sign for everyone to be sure to ask next time if they want a second doughnut, that way it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Another option could be, “ If you brought extras, you could even choose your favorites or bring some home for your roommate.”

The Approach

Now that you know what to do, all you need is to know how to do it. This is where MAN comes in! MAN gives you the finishing touches to make sure that you do not come across as hostile, belittling, or overassertive. 

  • Mindful – Be aware of how you come across. Is your posture threatening or relaxed? How would you respond to your tone or choice of words? Is this a good time or place to have this conversation? What does the body language of the other person say to you? Are there cultural differences that would affect the outcome of the situation?
  • Appear Confident – While you do want to be careful that your interaction isn’t going to be read as hostile or demeaning, you should appear confident in what you are saying and asking. It can help to practice what you will say beforehand or even rehearse the conversation with a neutral person. 
  • Negotiation – This can be a tricky one, but it can be beneficial to be open to compromise. If the topic is triggering for either of you, or the solutions are outside of reasonable, you and the other person have the right to say no. If there is a way to compromise, be sure that both you and the other person agree and stick to that promise. 

By mastering this skill, I have found that my relationships with others, professional and personal, have become more enriched and focus on mutual success rather than unnecessary competition. My teams and I have also found that this skill also worked well when applying it to situations like interacting with upset customers and even when parenting.

Criticism doesn’t have to be scary for either party involved. Allowing for negotiation and expressing yourself calmly are great ways to allow yourself and the other person to feel uplifted by the end of the conversation rather than defeated or demeaned.