When You Get Criticized At Work, Try Using The 'Fire Model'

When You Get Criticized At Work, Try Using The 'Fire Model'

I know my readers rarely do anything worthy of criticism, but play along with me anyway. Let’s imagine your boss enters your office and blasts you with this:

I read that report you sent me yesterday, and there were two typos! You don’t pay enough attention to your work and you clearly don’t listen to anything I say because I’ve told you a hundred times to proofread! And when you ignore me like this, you make me really angry. Because I can’t trust you to produce great work, I will proofread everything you write for the next six months!

This is probably an extreme example, but it’s instructive. Most people reading this focus on the emotionally loaded phrases like “you ignore me,” “I can’t trust you,” “you make me really angry” and “I will proofread everything you write.” It’s hard to focus on much else because those pieces of the boss’ criticism are so hurtful and insulting. But focusing on those highly-charged phrases, even when less strongly worded, is exactly the wrong move to make when criticism comes your way.

Let me explain: There are generally four layers in any conversation: Facts, Interpretations, Reactions and Ends (FIRE). Facts are those things that you could see, hear, videotape, and validate. Facts are objective, provable, and verifiable. Those highly-charged phrases above aren’t Facts; they’re the Interpretations, Reactions and Ends (IRE).

The only Fact in our example is “two typos” (assuming that we truly made two typos). Facts aren’t always pleasant, but they’re usually not the biggest culprit behind the hurt feelings that typically happen when we get criticized.

Once we observe a Fact, our mind uses our life history, previous experiences, and personality predispositions to interpret the Fact, to put it into a context and to give it meaning. That’s Interpretation.

In the example, our boss interpreted the Fact of our two typos to mean ‘we don’t pay enough attention to our work and we don’t listen to anything he says.’ Delivering a report with two typos isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly not as serious an offence as inattention and insubordination (which is the interpretation our boss has made).

Once we’ve interpreted a Fact, we have an emotional Reaction (based on our Interpretation, not the Fact itself). In this case, the boss’ Reaction is “I’m really angry.”

And finally, our emotional Reaction generally causes us to pursue some End. Here our boss’ desired End is that he’ll proofread everything we write for the next six months.

If the boss had just given us the Facts (you made two typos), without Interpretations, Reactions and Ends, we could have had a really productive conversation. We would have been free to admit our mistakes, reevaluate our work habits, apologize and even make a heartfelt commitment to change. But because we weren’t prepared to get hit with all those Interpretations, Reactions and Ends, we’re left feeling mostly angry, or hurt, or maybe even a bit spiteful.

The bad news is that you might not be able to change the way people criticize you. But you can change the way you listen and react to criticism. The next time you get a dose of criticism, mentally sort everything you hear into the 4 categories of Facts, Interpretations, Reactions and Ends. It takes focus and some practice. Then set aside the Interpretations, Reactions and Ends, and start processing the Facts.

Facts generally have a calming influence. The IRE, by contrast, get us emotional, angry, and erode our ability to think clearly. So set the emotionally-charged stuff aside and just think about the Facts. Really dig in: Did I actually make those two typos? Yeah, I did. OK, so what caused me to make those typos? Was I in a rush, did I get distracted? What about my work process can I change to avoid those typos in the future?

Digging into the Facts forces us to think like unemotional analytical problem solvers. And that’s a good thing because it makes us both smarter and more open to change. I’m not going to tell you that every bit of criticism you’ll ever receive will be chock full of epiphanies. But there’s usually some valuable Fact stuffed into most criticism that’s worth hearing.

What about all the Interpretations, Reactions and Ends the boss dumped on us? Should we respond to that directly? No is the answer, and here’s why.

What response could we give that would make the boss happy? Saying “I’m sorry you’re angry” is probably only going to make the boss angrier. And talking about their feelings will really set them off. But when we analytically dissect our typos, identify the mistakes we made that caused those typos, and come up with some solutions for fixing them, now we can really calm the boss and earn back their trust.

Posted by Mark Murphy on 16 April, 2018 no_cat, no_recent, sb_ad_30, sb_ad_5 |
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