A senior engineer asks:

I manage a team of engineers in terms of content and in doing so I get stuck quite often. For example, I think one of my engineers should do things differently, but I don’t get through to him with my criticism. I worry that I will have to redo the work later. How do I get the engineer to listen to my criticism?

I also have a colleague from whom I need information. I have already kicked his ass a couple of times, but to no avail. I am fed up with it. Because of this irritation I’m afraid that if I say something about it it won’t come out ‘nicely’. How do I deal with this?

The communication trainer replies:

In both situations, it’s all about giving feedback. In other words, telling someone what you think, with the goal of improving behavior. This is a tricky soft skill, especially when it comes to negative criticism. Two pitfalls come into play here: you avoid the issue, which means the message does not get through to him/her, or you are too blunt, which damages the relationship. We often choose to avoid these pitfalls by just not saying anything. Of course, this does not make the problem go away. Even worse: it becomes worse. It is even the case that if you open your mouth after long delay, your pent-up criticism will indeed come out too unsubtly. So, what you wanted to avoid is actually created, namely a discussion that leads nowhere.

If you’re not careful, you draw the conclusion that ‘saying something about it’ next time is not a good idea either. The threshold for giving feedback thus becomes higher. This is bad news, because, as human beings, we can only learn by receiving feedback. If we are not aware of what we are doing and what the effect is, we cannot adjust our behavior to what is needed. In short: if you want to develop, you need feedback from your environment. Whether you like it or not. So, this also applies to your colleague. With this intention, it already becomes easier to start saying something. After all, you say it to improve the situation, to help the other person improve.

To effectively influence the behavior of the colleague and make your feedback land, four steps are necessary. The steps are all necessary and you take them one by one.

'Look for a solution together'

Step 1: Announce that you want to say something about the work or the collaboration (do not dive straight into the content). The other person then knows that they have to pay attention. Say, for example, “I want to talk to you about what has struck me (or what bothers me)’’.

Step 2: State in concrete and factual terms the other person’s behavior and what effect it has on you and/or the work (this can also be an emotion). So don’t say: ‘You’re handling it wrong’. This is not clear. Say: ‘I see that, for the third time, you are delivering your work later than we agreed’ (behavior of the other person). I am falling behind with my work as a result and so have too little time to do it properly (effect on the work). I am afraid that I am getting stuck and I worry about that. Moreover, it irritates me that you do not keep our agreement (effect on me)’. Note that we often forget about the effect on yourself and this makes the message just not get through to him/her.

Step 3: Take a step back and let the other person respond. You do this by asking a question. Say, for example, “Do you recognize this?” or “What do you think about this?” and then wait for an answer (a silence of at least four seconds stimulates the other person to react). This may be uncomfortable for the other person for a moment. If so, it means your message is getting through. It is important to let it be for a while and not to rush to the solution.

Step 4: Have you made up your mind? Look for a solution together. Being able to give good feedback is no guarantee of success. It does give you the tools with which you can positively influence the majority of situations.

Jaco Friedrich offers several courses designed for technology professionals who want to improve their communication and leadership skills.