Crucial Conversations QA

How to Respond to Public Criticism from a Coworker

Dear Joseph,

I have a challenge with a relatively new coworker who consistently tells me how “he would do my job if he were me.” He says this in front of my staff members. I respect his knowledge and leadership, but the frequent digs are starting to get to me. I have taken him aside and asked that he share his criticisms in private yet he continues to do it. I have been quite successful in my role but am open to constructive criticism. This individual is getting on my nerves! HELP!

Unwanted Advice

Dear Unwanted Advice,

First of all, you’ve put yourself in a rare league by simply having the first conversation. Good job! Most people grumble about these things but say nothing. By speaking up you’ve signaled that you understand the first principle of Crucial Conversations: Work on me first, us second. You’ve acknowledged that if you don’t like the result you’re getting, it’s your job to figure out how to create change. Now that you understand the principle, let’s talk about three ways you can continue to apply it:

1. Own and master your emotions. The most challenging way to “work on me first” is by owning your emotions. This means that you recognize that “my emotions are always about me.” The corollary to this concept is: “what you did does not dictate how I feel.” For example, a friend once told me his teenage son had yelled, “I hate you!” at him. I immediately felt a knot in my chest and a warm feeling of hurt and even a simmering anger—all in sympathy for my friend. I knew what a great father he was, and felt it was unjust for this ungrateful cub to lash out at him like that. As I felt this immediate rush of emotion, I noticed my friend seemed to be in an entirely different place. He seemed placid, even . . . grateful. Yes, I saw a look of hope in his eyes. I commented and inquired about this observation. My friend replied, “I was happy he finally opened up. After telling me he hated me, my son told me things that were hurting and scaring him that made it possible to connect in a way we haven’t for over a year.”

It turns out, that you can feel any emotion at any time about any event. Think about that! When people do things—like tell us how they would do our job—we can feel annoyed, angry, offended, curious, sympathetic, impassive, amused, sad, or even grateful. The whole palette of emotions is available to us. But most of us miss the opportunity to influence our emotions because we believe they are caused by the actions of others.

Two clues in your question tell me your mental “story” is taking you to a place you don’t enjoy. You say “he is getting on your nerves.” My contention is YOU are getting on your nerves. You are characterizing what he is doing as “digs” and “criticism.” That’s your story. Sure, he may be trying to point out flaws, but you are choosing to take them as digs about you rather than information about him. Furthermore, you felt it important to point out to me that you have been successful in your job. That suggests to me you are personalizing his behavior. You feel a need to defend yourself. You are making it about you. Please read that last sentence again. YOU are making it about you.

The truth is you and I are doomed for all of our existence to live around imperfect people. Some people’s imperfections will accompany more unpleasant emotions than others. But this is less because of what they are doing and more because of the story we choose to tell ourselves about it. One of the most powerful ways you can “work on me first” is to accept your role in your upset, and practice finding peace even when he continues his comments. If you choose not to use this challenge as a way of developing greater emotional responsibility and competence, life will present you other equally promising ones!

2. Escalate the conversation. Please don’t take any of what I just said as a reason not to try to influence your colleague. I can see multiple reasons that it would be wise to talk. First, because you are imperfect. You are likely to continue taking offense from his actions. And while you work on your own emotional competence, it would be helpful if he gave you fewer practice opportunities! Second, because his comments might negatively affect your influence with your team—for example, by raising questions about support of your decisions.

You’ve had a first conversation with your colleague. That was what we call a “content” conversation. The topic you addressed was, “You offer public unrequested suggestions about my work.” At the conclusion of that conversation, you requested he make his suggestions 1:1. I assume he committed to do so and is now violating that commitment. The next conversation you need to hold is a “relationship” conversation. This one is about trust—not public commentaries. The topic is: “You made a commitment to offer your suggestions in private, and yet you continue to do so publicly.”

Don’t let this conversation slide back into the merits or demerits of public criticism. That’s not what it’s about. It is about a failure to keep a promise. Keep the focus there and then ask for a new commitment. If he is willing to make one, I suggest you build accountability into the agreement—for example, by asking permission to give him feedback twice in the next 30 days about his compliance with the agreement.

3. Stay responsible. Finally, if he continues to transgress his commitment, remember, this is about you not him. He gets to be imperfect. You don’t get to expect everyone to show up the way you wish they would. What you get to do is decide how you’ll respond. Should he fail to change substantially, you can:

Remind him every time it happens.
Learn to let it go.
Walk away (in a non-punishing way) when it happens.
Transfer away from him.
Change companies.
A common argument against what I am suggesting is, “Why should I have to leave if he’s got the problem?” The answer to this is: “You’ve got the problem, so you’re responsible to solve it.”

I hope you don’t hear me as unsympathetic. I am sympathetic. It’s hard to stay responsible. It’s hard to live a life of “work on me first.” It’s so much easier to live as a powerless victim. And living that way conforms to the story we’ve been fed from the cradle—that happiness is about changing our circumstances. It takes enormous humility and honesty to embrace the worldview I’m describing. I know, because I struggle to do it, too!

Best wishes for greater peace and happiness at work,

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