The critic in your face

Dec. 18, 2014
Developing skills for handling criticism from colleagues

Developing skills for handling criticism from colleagues

BY Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

Have you ever felt as though you were being attacked at the office? Have you ever given a project your all, only for the project to be shot down - maybe even before it got out of the gate? Negative criticism can have irreparable consequences on office relationships. Criticism, when delivered inappropriately, bears on whether you feel like a part of the team. If you feel alienated, it will be reflected in hesitation and possibly in unwillingness to try something new or be inventive again.

If you have felt this way, you are not alone. Author Lorna Riley says, "Most people have been recipients of negative criticism at some point. Right or wrong, people will judge others - their character, the value of what they are doing, and the intentions behind the offering." The good news is that negative criticism is often a simple matter of miscommunication. Misunderstanding others is easy because interpersonal communication is challenging. The result of miscommunication is the erosion of everything, from relationships to profitability.

Who's to blame?

Suppose you have delivered care to a periodontal patient on a quarterly basis for years. For over a decade, you have performed biannual comprehensive periodontal screenings, as well as periodontal screenings and recordings (PSRs), on the patient. Since there have been no marked changes in his pocket measurements for 10 years, his periodontal status is stable ... or so you think.


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When he presents to the office as an emergency patient, he is in pain and dumbfounded to learn that he has a periodontal abscess and an 8 mm pocket on the mesiolingual of the upper right second molar. The doctor prescribes antibiotics and suggests a referral to a specialist, who may recommend laser therapy, surgery, or an extraction. The patient reacts with anger and wonders how this could be possible. He has been coming to you religiously for years. What kind of dental practice is this anyway? He gets upset with your boss, who is taken off guard by the patient's fury and reacts defensively. Upon dismissal of the inflamed patient, your boss immediately approaches you, ripping into you. How could you make such a blatant error? Your last PSR was only two weeks ago, and clearly you did it wrong. How could you be so incompetent?

This is a precarious situation. You feel as though you are being attacked and have been judged guilty without an opportunity to defend yourself. Your natural reaction is explosive - the fight response. You, too, are angry because your boss blamed you without listening to your point-of-view or giving you the benefit of the doubt. Aren't you supposed to be a team? You want to emphasize that the X-ray shows the pocket to be a deep, narrow ravine that anyone could miss during a PSR. You want to point out that the PSR is not a complete exam and that the patient is not due for his comprehensive periodontal screening for another two and a half months.

Fortunately, you recognize that, although these are valid points, you are not prepared to deliver them in a calm, collected manner. You fear that your reactive instinct will only add fuel to an already-hot fire. So, you take responsibility and defuse the situation by admitting that you clearly missed the pocket. Immediately, your boss is disarmed. You suggest that this upset be revisited in the near future when you expect that both of you will have had time to rethink the situation constructively.

There are multiple benefits to delaying the discussion. Taking charge of your emotions will enable you to feel empowered, rather than victimized. You can choose a response that will not intensify the situation, and you can extract an opportunity to build understanding and strengthen your relationship.

Additionally, you will respect yourself because you did not become provoked, and it's likely that you will be gaining the respect of your boss, as well. In this situation, you have been a leader, demonstrating to your boss a balanced and productive way to deal with criticism. Had you entered the discussion under the influence of anger, the discussion would have been negative and could have caused your relationship to deteriorate. Addressing the issue with both parties in control of their emotions, on the other hand, allows for a positive outcome to be expected. In addition, a cooling off period gives your boss time to think about how the complaint should have been handled and to consider issuing an apology.

From criticism to feedback

Responses to negative criticism within the dental office run the gamut - from anger to revenge and from depression to leaving the scene. All of these responses are natural for humans, mirroring the fight-or-flight response that has served humankind during times of threat for millenniums. Yet, as intelligent human beings who need to work together in teams, we need skills for delivering and receiving criticism. When we can detach from feeling personally attacked and master our responses to upsets, we will engage in team building, rather than team erosion.

The first point of order is to shift your thinking away from the concept of criticism toward the concept of feedback. Feedback is a more productive way for contentious information to be delivered than criticism. Criticism carries the connotation of being condemning, while feedback connotes pointers for improvement. One example of effective feedback is the process used by Toastmasters International. In this process, two or three points about positive skills are offered for every one point where improvement needs to be made. This gentler spin on evaluation can make a difference as to whether the recipient of the feedback (either you or someone else) is open or closed to the information provided. It can also influence whether offense is taken and whether the communication process is shut down.1

A resolution will not always be reached. Sometimes you simply need to agree to disagree. Be respectful of each other and continue to be professional. You work with this person, and harboring feelings is damaging to both the office environment and your health.

Addressing issues as they arise is vital in order to prevent future problems. Issues left unattended or ignored will grow over time and cause office relationships to deteriorate. After a while, a small problem might be the last straw, creating a crisis for you and your team. To avoid crises and nurture receptive mindsets in your office, commit to open communication as an individual and team player. Gain skills by offering feedback instead of criticism. Make it a habit to point out two positives about a teammate before recommending an area for improvement.

If you are the target of negative criticism, exercise diplomatic communication skills.3 You can set a good example for everyone else in the office by avoiding the temptation to bad-mouth colleagues. This type of behavior fans the flame, is unfair, and solves nothing. Instead, practice professionalism by dealing directly with the criticizer in a responsible manner. Addressing the issue assertively will help you to avoid further injury, develop a resolution to the problem (even if that means agreeing to disagree), and finally, build a healthier relationship and stronger team.

Learning skills for criticism will help you to create an office environment that is healthier, more productive, and happier for the entire team. RDH

How to handle negative feedback

In a perfect world, the feedback received by team members would be delivered in such a way that they clearly understand and accept the need for improvement. There would be no misunderstanding that the information delivered is about behavior and that it is not a personal attack. An effective evaluator would enlist you as a co-creator of positive change. When information is delivered in a negative manner, however, it is not conducive to this kind of engagement. Before reacting and potentially inflaming the situation, consider the following ways to deal with negative feedback.

1. Be open to what the other person is saying, stay calm, and ask questions to unveil what they know and how they feel. Ask for the specifics, as they are understood by the person offering the feedback but may not always be clear to the recipient. Make sure that you listen to them to find out where they are coming from and to ensure that you hear them out completely. You can only address the issue accurately if you understand it as they see it. Often, there is a tendency for the issue to be exaggerated in the mind of the critic, and sometimes this will be noticeable in the retelling.

Sometimes, too, the issue at hand can cause unresolved issues from the past to surface. If the current issue is unrelated to past issues, agree to discuss them at another time. Similarly, if there is a tendency for your teammate to bring up off-topic events, remind the teammate that you need to deal with this present issue before you can deal with other issues. To deflate the issue, pinpoint the specifics.

Be sensitive to the mood of the discussion. If anger is present, it is better to mutually commit to revisit the issue in the near future when tempers have cooled. Being sensitive to the mood of the discussion can help you respond to what is being said, rather than what you think is being implied. Get the facts, stick to the topic, and clarify that you understand what the other person says. Repeat what you think you've heard to determine whether you are correct. Remember that communicating is all about correctly understanding the messages exchanged.

2. Don't take it personally and acknowledge that everyone has the right to an opinion. Be open-minded enough to recognize that your teammate's opinion is not about you personally. Express that you understand your teammate's frustration based on their take of the event. By keeping the conversation open and showing empathy, you will bridge the divide more effectively.

3. Express to the criticizer that you want to discuss the issue as you see it. This is your opportunity to present the facts, circumstances, reasons, and ethics behind your action(s). When done in a professional manner, it will keep the dialogue open and help the other party understand - if not agree - with your action(s). Avoid defensive words or behavior, and be careful not to use "yes ... but" phrasing since this type of reply can seem like an excuse. Instead, try "yes ... and I understand where you are coming from; let me tell you exactly what happened." Maintaining a demeanor of calmness is imperative. Make sure to present your points in an explanatory manner and not in a defensive or hostile manner. Choose your words thoughtfully, and even more importantly, observe that your body language is nonthreatening.

4. Make an offer for resolution. Keep an open mind about how you might bridge the gap. What is it that the other person needs to feel OK with the situation? Have you both arrived at the conclusion that there has been a misunderstanding, miscommunication, or mistake? Are you willing to let it go without holding a grudge? Are you mature enough to apologize if you realize that you have made a mistake? Are you open to a fellow team member "saving face" by failing to offer an apology, even if s/he is wrong? Remember that not everyone shares the same values, and not everyone has the strength of character to admit when they are wrong. For the greater good of the office, sometimes it's better for you to accept what a teammate can offer and move on.2

Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected].


1. Effective Evaluation. Toastmasters International Wiki. http://toastmasters.wikia.com/wiki/Effective_Evaluation.

2. Riley L. Chart Learning Solutions. National Speakers' Association Conference. Tampa, Florida. Feb. 2014. http://lornariley.com/.

3. Balla M. Effective Communication in the Work Environment. The Adlerian Counselling (sic) and Consulting Group Inc. Ottawa, Ontario. 1999. www.adleriancentre.com.