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When Criticizing, Good Leaders Separate the Person From the Opinion
Debating the merits of an opinion, idea, or proposal would be a lot easier if people didn’t take criticisms personally.
But, they do.
People have an exceedingly difficult time separating their opinions from their personal identities. As a result, any criticism or negative feedback regarding their viewpoints is often considered a personal attack.
The more the opinion and the person are connected in belief and expression, the more likely it is that hard feelings and conflict will replace healthy dialogue when others disagree.
Good leaders presume it is their job to draw a hard line between opinions and people to alleviate the need for people to defend themselves. The idea is not to deny authorship or attribution for an idea or opinion, but rather to avoid connecting the two when expressing criticism or disagreement.
Disagreeing with an opinion does not require a leader to refer to its author as if they are the same thing. There is a marked difference between saying, “I don’t think that idea is reasonable or cost-effective,” versus saying, “Kris, I’m not sure why you would propose something that is unreasonable and cost-prohibitive.”
Whenever a leader conflates an idea or opinion they don’t like with the person offering it, they set the stage for a defensive reaction — or worse. The truth is, leaders face this choice virtually every time they disagree or offer criticism.
Even just referring to the person when discussing the idea connects the two and sets off alarm bells: “Terry, I really take issue with this idea” is interpreted differently than, “I really take issue with this idea.” “You shouldn’t have said that,” carries a different meaning than, “That shouldn’t have been said.”
Good leaders refrain from using references and attribution connected to viewpoints they take issue with. They stop short of labeling the person as someone they disagree with. Instead, they focus their attention exclusively on the opinion or idea without mention of the source. This encourages both parties to examine the idea on its merits and not on where it came from.
Conflict that arises from a defensive reaction can be avoided with this simple habit. Separating people and opinions when offering criticism is really worth working on.
Sometimes the smallest changes in how leaders express things can make a world of difference. When it comes to criticizing an idea or opinion, the best leaders know a sound diagnosis focuses on the issue, not the person.