It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

Posted November 28, 2012 by Marcy Farrey in On the Ladder

I’m a big believer in addressing situations with the appropriate tone and attitude. And believe me, this isn’t always easy to do. When you’re under a lot of pressure, you might be short with someone or snap at the discovery of a few small issues. But do this enough and your coworkers, employees, or managers won’t like working with you. You might look like someone who really isn’t confident or in control.

I saw this a lot in newsrooms, a place where everyone is under a significant amount of deadline pressure. A few short remarks or a demeaning tone would slip out, and cause some of us to respect a coworker or manager less. This is when I came to understand the meaning of “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

Thinking back on my experiences, some of the best, most useful criticism I received came in certain writing workshops. A lot of the techniques of good writing critique groups can be applied to any situation when constructive criticism is needed. For example, these techniques would help during a performance review or when critiquing a young or new employee. How does it work?

  • Critique in the appropriate setting. A writing workshop is a place where writers expect to be critiqued. This should be replicated in a business setting. Send an email to the person or call them to make a private appointment — don’t just stand up in the middle of a full room of employees and shout, “Let’s have a private chat ______,” unless it’s truly an emergency. That’s calling unnecessary attention.
  • Start with what you know is working. A good writing critique group starts with an overview of the piece and what is working. The best critique groups addressed this with the questions “What do we know?” and “What do we think we know?” You know the employee is trying, so address what you do see that is working. Think about what you know and what you think you know about the employee’s situation, then focus on the facts.
  • Move to what you think needs work — not what is wrong or bad or annoying. Again, a lot of this is about how you say it. Explain what hasn’t been working or what errors were made, then explain that it needs work for next time — this will stick much longer with the person than a lecture. Also, try telling a story, as I explained in a previous post. Talk about a time when you or another employee struggled or made a mistake, then explain how you or the other person recovered.
  • Ask questions. At the end of writing critiques, the writer is at last allowed to speak. The other members of the group ask questions of the author — “What did you mean on page 2?” or “What is your goal with this piece?” Ask what is going on in the minds of your employees when they make errors or mistakes. Ask for their reasoning, so that you might find a way to help them sort out the problem better next time. Talking it out will also help the employee sort out their questions and uncertainties with you.

When it comes to criticism, remember that it’s not what you say, but how you say it. You can still get across the same point if you take the time to address the issues appropriately. When you do this, you will earn the respect of those around you, and they’ll actually be more willing to change the next time around. If they aren’t, you might have a bigger problem that requires intervention, but until then, make an honest effort to help the other person grow.


About the Author

Marcy Farrey

Marcy Farrey is a videographer, writer, and editor. In her previous life, she worked as a broadcast news reporter and producer in Lincoln, Nebraska and as a writer and producer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University. Learn more about Marcy on her website

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