18 January 2016

Replacing Bad Habits: Use Emotional Intelligence to Deal with Criticism

When I was in my twenties and single, I lived in Chicago. One weekend I was hanging out with a big group of friends. We were all young and almost all of us were single – except for Mark and Mandy. They had been married for a couple of years and had just bought a new house.

HiResThis was pretty exciting, so they invited a bunch of us over to check it out. As we walked through Wrigleyville on our way to see their new digs, my friend Angie and I were talking about how incredible it was that Mark and Mandy were not just married – but now, homeowners. No one else in the group felt anywhere close to that advanced stage in life.

We walked through the urban neighborhood and arrived at the townhouse where they lived. It was quite spacious. They gave us a tour. When we arrived at the kitchen I turned to Angie and remarked that I didn’t like the color it was painted. And there didn’t seem to be that much counter space.

Angie turned to me and she said, “Do you have to criticize everything?”

We All Criticize Sometimes

We’ve all been there. Everyone becomes critical when they are frustrated or fed up with something, especially technology that just isn’t working the way they expect causing friction in day-to-day life due to a faulty user experience.

I love my phone, but there are a couple of things that could be improved. When I am on a call and receive a second call, it gives me options to put the first call on hold and take the second call. When I do this, I can talk to the second caller. But then when I am done with the second call it hangs up both calls. Then if I am lucky, the first caller calls me back – 20 seconds later. Not an ideal experience. (I realize this might be different depending on the carrier. My carrier is Verizon).

Why Do We Criticize?

In the case of my criticism of my friends’ kitchen, I was probably finding comfort in an old habit that made me feel better about the fact that I was not married and did not own a house. In the case of the phone, my main motivator is frustration.

There are other reasons people criticize. Sometimes criticism is fear-based. Paul Lohkamp points to an unhealthy relationship cycle that often progresses from criticism to defensiveness to contempt to stonewalling.

We can find the same bad cycle in the workplace. It might start when an employee, call her Sara, criticizes another employee, Jack – perhaps Jack’s role as a QA analyst is limiting Sara in her capacity as an engineer.

Unhealthy Escalation

Consider this escalation scenario: Jack is testing Sara’s code and discovers a defect. Sara would like to fix the bug, but Jack tells Sara the time for fixes has passed, and it would be too risky to accept another code update before the big release, which is just a week away. Sara insists that the fix is not risky at all – it is simple and straightforward and won’t impact anything other than the defect it is addressing. Jack stands fast and claims there would not be enough time to re-test everything else – something the process requires to ensure the release goes smoothly.

Sara’s frustration may come from fear – she knows how to fix this defect and does not want to be blamed for a feature that doesn’t work when customers start using the new version of the application. When Sara’s manager, Dan, starts to question Sara about the defect, Sara gets defensive and explains it is not her fault this bug exists, that in fact another developer helped her with this code and they did not adequately unit test their piece. Sara explains to Dan the fix would be easy if only Jack would make a minor exception to his impractical and inflexible rules.

The more Sara thinks about the way she is being punished, through what she views as no fault of her own, the more her contempt for Jack grows. Soon Sara starts to act hostile to the entire department, feeling that their procedures are archaic and need to be updated to a more agile approach. The next time someone asks Sara to fix something, Sara stonewalls and refuses to even meet with the person.

“Agents sometimes benefit the most from emotional intelligence: understanding the reason why a customer calls in with a negative mindset before picking up the phone and setting a positive tone for the conversation from the get go can go a long way.”

Breaking the Cycle

In relationships – be they at work or in our personal lives – what starts as criticism can quickly escalate to behaviors with much more severe consequences.

In a call center, agents are constantly being bombarded by callers who criticize the products or services that their company provides. Rarely do agents receive calls praising the products or the company. Therefore, agents sometimes benefit the most from emotional intelligence: understanding the reason why a customer calls in with a negative mindset before picking up the phone and setting a positive tone for the conversation from the get go can go a long way. If you understand the customer, then you know what is driving their emotions and can speak to that right off the bat. This creates a better experience for all.

If you are the caller, is there a way you can present your issue in a kinder, gentler way? Can you use Emotional Intelligence (EI) techniques to calm yourself down? Research shows that not only can we achieve more effective communication using EI, but we can also expect better reception and quicker resolution of our issues when the person on the other end of the phone perceives us as their ally and partner rather than their attacker and challenger.

Feedback Vs. Criticism

Providing feedback rather than criticizing is only one half of the solution. The other half is using the technique of positive suggestion. The next time you have a problem with someone or feel the need to call the customer support line to yell at a customer service representative, think about a two-pronged approach that will probably yield you much better (and quicker) results.

First, use the EI technique of empathy to help you appreciate the point of view of the rep on the other end of the line. They have probably been sitting at a desk fielding calls all day (or more likely all night since most call centers are in time zones that are 12 hours ahead of the US). The agent’s day (or night) has been punctuated by upset callers who blame the agent directly for difficulties for which the agent is in no way responsible. To make matters worse, most callers have probably been on queue for 30 minutes or longer!

When the representative finally answers your call, why not thank them for their willingness to help you and tell them you hope their day (night) is going well. Imagine how much more apt he would be to help you, offer you a credit, drop a penalty as a courtesy, send you a free upgrade, or replace your product outright if he senses you are appreciative instead of hostile?

Further, you could use the EI technique of positive framing to advance your cause. You could explain your issue and give a friendly suggestion as to what you think might be the problem, or what would be a good remedy. You might explain that you know that the agent to whom you are speaking probably had no role in creating the defective product, or charging you extra for some service you didn’t use, but you are hoping he can find the right person to help you.

Of course, the same strategies can yield better results in personal situations. Rather than complain about something or criticize someone, EI suggests using self-awareness to recognize you are about to react in a way that could negatively impact your goal.  Slow down.  Take a deep breath. Think of something you are grateful for.

Is there a way you can phrase that criticism in a positive way?  Try not to attack, insult or be mean.  Talk about actions or things, not the person.  Don’t tell someone she’s wrong.  Instead, offer a specific, positive suggestion.  Focus on the actions rather than the person doing the actions.

62773696_thumbnailLooking Inward

When I was told that I am a critical person, it knocked me out of balance. Angie was a good friend of mine who I trusted and respected.  But what in the world was she talking about?  Was criticizing really something that I did all the time? Enough for her to call me out on it?

Oprah would call this an “Aha! Moment” – a moment when you discover something about yourself that you would never have noticed were it not for some watershed event that opened your eyes to it.

But then once you are aware of it, you realize that not only has it always been true, but that it is so obvious.

As humans, we strive to find our place in the world. Often we struggle to understand ourselves and the decisions that we make and the reasons for the actions we take.  Ultimately, we are on a journey to self-awareness that lasts a lifetime.

We all have bad habits. The first step in replacing a bad habit is recognizing that it exists. The second step is taking full ownership and accountability.

Self-awareness is the essence of Emotional Intelligence. Once you are able to identify your emotions, you are ready to try and manage them.  Preventing amygdala hijacks where you get tunnel vision and react to stimula in an undesirable way requires the ability to see these reactions coming. Reacting impulsively may cause irrevocable consequences that can impact our ability to do our jobs. Even more vulnerable are our personal relationships. Generally, the closer you are to someone, the more impacted the relationship is.

Treating Others Mindfully

We all know that we save our worst behavior for the very people we trust the most and with whom we feel the most comfortable. Our spouses. Our kids. Our friends. Our family. Our close business associates.

For me, that means that those are the people who are likely to receive the most attention, love – and criticism.

PTP has recently embarked on an EI initiative. As a result, I have become acutely aware of this and other bad habits that often lead to bad EI. I have endeavored to improve myself. I have made a conscious decision to stop and think before I react and criticize. I have elected to treat those around me who I care about more mindfully.

EI Tools Can Help

EI practices give you the tools to recognize potential triggers, pause before reacting, and manage the accompanying emotions in a more effective way.

This is not easy. Ingrained habits and behaviors become imbued in us and parting with them can leave us feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.

My tendency to criticize serves me in a few ways. It is a defense mechanism. It makes me feel better about myself. It gives me perceived power over things or circumstances or people.

Of course, this perceived power is false power, since I am setting myself at a disadvantage by acting this way. Real power can only be earned by treating others with respect and viewing challenging situations for what they truly are – opportunities to influence others, partner with others, and raise your esteem in their eyes.

We are taught in school and throughout life to be critical thinkers. We are told to question things instead of just accepting them at face value – to buck the status quo. This applies equally in the business world. Critical thinking spurs technological innovation and medical advances. Criticism is an important tool when used properly. When abused, it can damage relationships that may take a long time to recover.

There are both positives and negatives to many habits one may possess. The trick is to keep the behaviors that tend toward positive outcomes, and to repurpose those that are counterproductive.

Check out my latest blog on how emotional intelligence contributes to creating a great customer experience.

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Mike Mendelson

Throughout my 25 years of experience in the software industry, I have combined my dual passions for technology and language to build rich customer experiences. I am dedicated to improving self-awareness and emotional intelligence in myself and others, as I believe they are the underpinnings of great teams and leaders. Currently, I am leading PTP’s adoption of Holacracy, a new, self-organizing system for management.


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