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Make Constructive Criticism Verbal, Not Digital

Have you ever sent an email, text, or direct message to someone only to have them react differently than you expected? Do you utilize digital messaging to deliver important messages regarding accountability or other constructive and corrective issues? If so, this may be why your recipients aren’t responding as you expected. Communication involving holding someone accountable or offering constructive criticism is always best delivered verbally, not digitally.

Verbal communication, either face-to-face or video conference, is delivered differently than electronic/written communication. Two huge components are missing from digital communication: tone and body language. Digital communication places the emotional outcome of the message in the hand of the receiver. Without direct, verbal communication, the receiver reads the message in the tone they set, rather than what the sender may have intended to set. This is why communicating constructive criticism is done best with direct, verbal communication. It leaves less room for user error and ensures your point gets across the way you intend.

No matter how eloquent you are with words, there is always room for you to miscommunicate your message or for your receiver to misinterpret your words. Digital communications lack properly conveyed tones, and therefore leave the tone up to the reader of the message. Giving someone constructive criticism is already difficult enough without the possibility of miscommunication. Leaders need to have full control over every aspect of their verbal delivery (words, tone, and body language), otherwise they run the risk of their criticism being seen as destructive.

Phone calls, and sometimes even video conferencing, can lose the energy of body language. Body language sets the tone before you even speak. It complements your vocal tone and words, whereas tone is slightly harder to distinguish over phone calls that lack body language. Phone calls can be misinterpreted as not being as serious or engaged enough. Tone on calls can be misread as inauthentic or cold. Calls lack the warmth of body language and this can impede on your team’s ability to learn. Verbal, in-person communication is best (when available) so leaders can ensure their team knows they are serious and engaged in helping that member grow.

When delivering constructive criticism, words are the foundation of your communication. However, even if your words are positive and constructive, your tone and body language can damage intended delivery. If you have a harsh or meek tone, or if your body language suggests anger or annoyance, the likelihood of your constructive criticism being seen as constructive goes down. Words, tone, and body language must work in harmony to deliver your message if you wish for it to be received well.

Some leaders may find it difficult to deliver constructive criticism. For those, it may be helpful to write your constructive criticism down for future or third-party review. Upon review, ensure it serves its purpose of helping your team grow rather than serving as an outlet. Ask a third-party if your criticism is both positive and constructive. Slowing down your process of delivering constructive criticism is a positive act. It ensures you give your best advice to your team to help them grow.

Leaders must be mindful of how they deliver constructive criticism so that they do not negate their advice through delivery. Part of this process is ensuring your team understands that your criticism stems from a place of care. You care about that member and their performance, as their performance contributes either positively or negatively to your company. Let them know you are interested in helping them grow as a human being and become a more positive influence.

However, getting your team comfortable with criticism can be difficult. When we learn that we have done something wrong or not up to par, most of us have emotions ranging from remorse to fear to regret. These negative emotions can impede on our ability to learn and grow. If you have a culture of giving and receiving constructive criticism that is positive for everyone involved, you set that expectation for all team members, new and old. If you can guarantee that the experience of receiving criticism is not negative but rather an opportunity for learning and growth, then your team will be 1) more receptive and 2) more likely to learn moving forward.

Conversely, understanding how your team responds to constructive criticism and how it influences them should not dissuade you from following up with them digitally. Reiterate to them in writing the conversation had verbally. This ensures you both stay on the same page, gives your team member an opportunity for reflection on the discussion, and reinforces the key points of that discussion. However, be mindful to NOT use this digital communication opportunity to rehash your points or remind your team member of their mistakes.

The end result should be a clear goal for your team member. Give them something that will help them be better. Then, you can help alleviate any immediate issues and manage the consequences (if you haven’t already). In order to help your team grow, you need to give them the tools to learn from their current experience. When you deliver constructive criticism verbally and positively, your team is more likely to apply themselves towards being better. Plus, you show them the proper way to communicate criticisms amongst other team members.

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Mary Smith
Mary Smith is the co-author of The I in Team Series of books that includes the just released Individual Advantages: Be the “I” in Team. Mary, a leadership development expert, is an Associate Consultant at IA Business Advisors. Mary's biggest passions in life are developing others and pursuing social and self awareness. Mary Smith is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.