Category Archives: Communication

Skills 360 – Dealing with Criticism (Part 2)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at some more ways of dealing with criticism.

Unless you’re perfect, you have room to improve. That doesn’t sound like a difficult idea to accept, but what is difficult is when other people point it out to us. They might tell us that we’ve done something wrong, or done something poorly, or shouldn’t have done something at all. Some people might tell us in a polite and professional manner, just as a wise and diplomatic boss might. But others might just sound harsh or rude. So, what should we do in the face of criticism?

Well, today I want to focus on validity. That is, on whether the criticism is valid, justified, or reasonable. If it is, then we should treat it as helpful and constructive. And if it’s not, then we might need a different approach.

All right, but first how do we know if criticism is valid or not? How do we know it is correct and reasonable? Well, sometimes you know it’s valid if you’ve heard it before. So, the first time you hear that you don’t sound polite enough on the phone, you might just think it’s one person’s opinion. But if you hear it numerous times, then you’d better watch your language.

Also, valid criticism is often tied to specifics. That is, the person says exactly what is wrong, not just generally that something is wrong. So, “you work too slowly” is questionable. But “you need to pick up the pace because you’ve delivered the past three reports late” is specific.

Of course, as I mentioned in the last lesson, you can ask questions to encourage the person criticizing you to be more specific. And that will help you figure out if the criticism is valid.

But sometimes criticism isn’t valid. Sometimes it’s unfair. Sometimes it’s a grumpy colleague who thinks he will look better if you look bad. That kind of criticism is sometimes delivered emotionally, rather than calmly and reasonably. Sometimes invalid criticism lacks specifics. And sometimes it just comes naturally from people who don’t play well with others.

Again, asking questions can help you figure it out. If the person can’t give you specifics, then maybe the criticism isn’t so valid after all. And if you’re really not sure, you can always try asking for a second opinion. So when Mike tells you that you’re a terrible negotiator, go ask Larry whether it’s true or not.

So why think about whether criticism is valid? Well, first of all because valid criticism is an opportunity to improve. We all need good feedback to learn how we can change or adapt what we do in order to get better. Don’t be afraid of that feedback. Embrace it. It will help you grow.

In other words, you need to learn to say “you’re right,” even when it hurts. In fact, sometimes we get most upset when someone criticizes us for something that we know is perfectly true and that we already feel bad about! But if the criticism is valid, then take it. And if that means you need to swallow your pride, then swallow it.

In some cases, criticism isn’t completely valid, but only partly. Surely you know someone who adds “never” or “always” to every piece of criticism? As in, “you never pick up your stuff in the staff room” or “you always change my settings when you use my computer.” Well, you should still acknowledge the valid part, even if it’s not completely true or it’s exaggerated. So you might say, “well, it’s true that I changed some settings last week, and for that I’m sorry.”

But what about that criticism that is not valid? What about the truly unfair comments that we have to put up with? You’ve got a few options. First, you can ignore it. And if the source is someone who everyone knows is cantankerous, it probably won’t matter. You can also challenge the criticism. Once again, this can mean asking questions. Invalid criticism will fall apart at the seams under scrutiny.

Thirdly, if the criticism isn’t fair because of a misunderstanding, then clear it up professionally, without making excuses or scapegoating. So if it wasn’t you who changed the computer settings, then don’t say “no way man, it was Rick!” Instead, try “I’m sorry but I think you’re mistaken. I haven’t used your computer. It may have been someone else.”

And finally, you can deal with the personal issue behind the criticism. I mean, if someone is criticizing you unfairly because they don’t like you, or they’re competing with you, then it may not be enough to deal with each point of criticism. You need to solve the underlying problem.

So remember, your approach to valid and invalid criticism may be different, but in any case you need to start out with an open mind. If you’re confident in yourself and your efforts, then you shouldn’t feel attacked when you’re criticized. Keep your chin up and learn from what others have to say. After all, you’re not perfect, right?

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Dealing with Criticism (Part 1)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at ways to deal with criticism.

Criticism is something we all have to face. During a performance review, we have to listen as our boss criticizes our work. In meetings, people criticize our ideas. And every day we might hear people criticize us in the staff room and over the phone. We might also hear praise in these situations, but more often than not it’s the sting of criticism that lingers. And let’s face it: hearing people criticize our work, or criticize us, is never really easy.

So, how can we face criticism with the right attitude and approach? Well, start by thinking about the situation and the source. The situation might be formal, like your performance review or another evaluation process. Or it might be informal, like in the staff room.

In formal situations, it’s often a supervisor or superior who is criticizing; in informal situations, well, it could be anyone. It’s important to think of the situation and the source, because that might help determine whether the criticism is constructive or destructive.

Although some people use the word “criticism” to refer to unfair negative comments, a lot of criticism is actually constructive. I mean, it’s intended to help us do something better, to improve, to change in positive ways. Of course, there’s always destructive criticism, which has different motivations. Destructive criticism is sometimes personal, intended to hurt people rather than help people. You need to be able to handle both.

Now, we’ve talked about formal and informal situations and constructive and destructive criticism. You can probably see the difference here: constructive criticism in formal situations is just a part of working life! More than that, it’s necessary. And your job probably requires you to deliver this type of criticism too. So you should look at this criticism as an opportunity – as hard as that might be to do.

Okay, but what about destructive criticism, especially in informal situations? I mean, what do you do when Dave your snarky colleague says “Geez, you really messed up that presentation, didn’t you?” Well, your attitude and approach shouldn’t actually be too different, even though you want to tell Dave exactly what you think of him.

You see, the best thing to do first, no matter what the situation, is to ask a question. If your boss says you need to take more initiative, you can ask “can you give me an example of a situation where I should have taken more initiative?” And if Dave tells you you’re terrible with PowerPoint, you can ask, “what do you think I need to do better, Dave?” By asking questions, you show that you take constructive criticism seriously, and you can challenge destructive criticism. Either way, you are maintaining a professional attitude.

The alternative to maintaining a professional attitude is getting defensive, angry, or resentful. In other words, responding emotionally. Nothing good will come of that type of reaction, regardless of the situation. In fact, studies have shown a connection between emotional responses to criticism and a lack of confidence or self-esteem. It’s true! If you get defensive, you show people that you’re fragile, and that’s not one of the qualities that leads to success.

Maintaining a professional attitude also means not shooting back with your own criticism against the other person. So that means we shouldn’t say “Oh yeah Dave? Well your writing skills leave a lot to be desired.” That kind of response is a one-way ticket to a nasty argument.

Of course, you probably wouldn’t be tempted to respond critically in a formal situation, when you’re listening to your boss review your performance. Still, in these formal situations, criticism can still be tough, and some people are not very skilled at giving criticism gently. We’ve all had bosses who sound harsh, or rude, without even knowing it. But we still need to separate the how from the what. That is, it’s not about tone of voice or word choice. It’s about the work, the performance, and the outcomes.

That’s the secret right there: think about outcomes. Don’t take things too personally. Instead, leave your ego out of it and consider your work objectively. Think about what you do and how you might do it better. If you can focus on improvement, and maintain a professional attitude, you’ll shine in the face of criticism, no matter what the situation.

So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Communication Skills 2: Clarifying

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to continue our look at how you can improve your communication skills.

Communication between people is never perfect. Even with the people closest to us, who you might think we can understand very well, there is miscommunication. Sometimes we don’t hear things correctly, or we don’t hear them at all, and sometimes people don’t express ideas precisely. That’s enough to complicate the situation, but then we can throw in implied meaning and our own understanding of what’s being said indirectly. Add to that the challenges that arise when you’re working in your second, or third, or fourth language, and it might be surprising that we understand each other at all!

But have no fear. There are ways to work though the minefield of communication and make everything clear. And that’s exactly what we’ll look at today: clarifying what people have said. There are basically two reasons to clarify: first, when we don’t know what someone said because we didn’t hear them; and second, when we don’t know what someone meant because we didn’t understand them.

Let’s begin with clarifying what someone said. When you don’t hear someone, you can simply tell them, politely of course. Use diplomatic expressions like “Pardon me?” Or, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch that.” Or, “Would you mind repeating that please?” Avoid short and blunt questions like “What?” or “What did you say?” These questions seem rude to many people. And when in doubt, too formal is a better mistake than too informal.

Now, if you heard what someone said but you don’t know what it means, make sure they know that. If you use the expressions we just looked at for when you didn’t hear someone, they might just repeat what they said. But if you didn’t understand the first time, chances are you won’t understand the second time. So how do you make it clear that you haven’t understood?

Well, avoid just saying “I don’t understand.” That feels too blunt and direct. Instead, try, “I’m not sure I follow you.” Or, say a speaker uses the expression “contingency plan” and you don’t know what that means. You can say, “Could you explain what you mean by contingency plan?” Or, “What exactly do you mean by contingency plan?” These kinds of expressions let the speaker know that you haven’t understood, not just that you haven’t heard.

Okay, so in some cases you might think you understand, but you’re not sure. So you want to clarify by checking your understanding. The first thing you can do is paraphrase what someone has said and ask for confirmation that your interpretation is correct. Paraphrasing just means saying the same thing but in different words. And you can do this by acknowledging what someone has said, restating it, and confirming with a tag question.

Here’s an example: if someone says “we anticipate that the share price will continue to soar,” you might say “I see, so you’re saying the stock will remain high, right?” Or if someone says “our marketing strategy needs a complete overhaul,” you can say “okay, you mean we need to change our strategy, right?” If you’re correct, the speaker will let you know. And if you’re incorrect, he will explain. Notice that the tag question “right?” is a yes/no question. Yes/no questions make it easy for the speaker to confirm your understanding or provide further explanation if you misunderstood.

Another technique for clarifying what someone has said is echoing to get confirmation or more explanation. This means repeating the key idea with question intonation. So if someone says “this year’s recruitment drive needs to be more aggressive,” you might say “it needs to be more aggressive?” In this way, you’re inviting more detail or examples. And the speaker might come back with “yes, last year we missed our goal. This year we need to work extra hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” Now you can be sure what the speaker meant.

Now, here’s a word of warning: some of the questions we use for clarifying can also be used to cast doubt on someone’s ideas or opinions. We act surprised and ask for confirmation to show that we disagree or don’t believe what someone has said. Sometimes our intonation makes it clear what our purpose is, but it’s often best to make it extra clear by adding something like “just to clarify” or “just so I understand here” to the beginning or end of a question. You don’t want someone get bent out of shape because he thinks you disagree him.

Now let’s recap. When you don’t hear someone, just politely let them know. If you don’t understand, tell the person, but don’t be too blunt or direct about it. And to avoid misunderstanding or invite greater explanation, you can use paraphrasing or echoing. So, now you’ve got clarifying techniques to go along with the listening techniques we learned last time. Remember, listening and clarifying go hand in hand. And with these tools and a spirit of understanding, you can improve your communication skills.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Communication Skills 1: Listening

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how you can improve your communication skills.

We spend a lot of time looking at different ways that you can make other people understand your ideas. But what about your ability to make sure you understand what other people are saying? Some people say that there’s a good reason we have two ears but one mouth: because we should spend twice as much time listening as we do speaking. And countless business leaders have emphasized the importance of good listening skills as the foundation of good communication.

Okay, but listening and understanding are not always easy. We’ve all found ourselves in situations – it could be a meeting, a presentation, an interview, or a negotiation – where we think “what did he just say?” or “what was that word?” Well, for starters, we need to accept that we might not understand everything. That’s not necessarily a problem. But what you do when you don’t understand something is what separates a good listener from a bad listener.

You see, it wouldn’t always be a good idea to stop a speaker and say “what was that word you just used?” Or “can you repeat that sentence?” If you didn’t catch something, well, get over it. And fast. You don’t have time to stop listening and think about what something means. And you don’t have time to translate either. You’ll get lost, and it will be difficult to get your head back into what you’re supposed to be listening to. Instead, you need to grab onto what you do understand, and then fill in what you don’t with logical guesses.

What you should be shooting for, first and foremost, is the gist of what’s being said. That means the main idea or underlying point that the speaker is trying to make. Details will support that main idea, and if you don’t catch them all it’s not the end of the world.

Okay, but how do we catch the gist? Well, one way is to focus on key words. Key words are the words that we understand that show the central message. They provide direct clues to the main idea. So if you hear someone say “blah blah new plan blah blah blah terrible idea blah blah blah can’t support blah blah blah”, then you have a good idea what the person is saying without understanding all the “blah blah.” If you focus on the “blah blah,” however, you might miss those important words that you do understand.

Another thing to remember is that people often repeat or explain their ideas further. If you don’t understand an idea right away, just be patient. The speaker might explain what she means, or give an example, or repeat the idea in different words. But if you get hung up on not understanding the first statement, you risk confusion. Here’s an example: say you’re listening to someone give a presentation on the latest sales figures, and he says “The last quarter was particularly disconcerting.”

Now, do you know what “particularly disconcerting” means? If not, don’t worry too much. Because the speaker will probably go on to explain or give examples. He might say something like this: “Our electronics division was down 13%. Mobile was down 16%. And automotive was down a whopping 24%.” Now, you can probably guess that “particularly disconcerting” is negative, right? But if you stopped listening and started wracking your brain to figure out what it meant, then you might have missed the explanation.

Of course, sometimes there are things that you hear that provoke questions that you need answered. That does certainly happen. And in those situations, the best thing to do is to write them down. You can make a note of a couple of important words, or write down an entire question. Then you can follow up on the matter later. And because you’ve written it down for later, you can put it aside at the time and keep listening.

So let’s do a quick review of what we covered here and see how well you were listening. Remember to accept that you might not be able to understand everything. Don’t stop listening when something you don’t know comes up, just keep trying to get the gist and the key words. And be patient because sometimes explanation or repetition can clear things up for us. And finally, make notes if you have to. Now, will these strategies guarantee that you understand everything perfectly? Of course not. Sometimes we need to ask for clarification, and if you tune in next time you’ll hear some tips for doing just that.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Facilitating a Brainstorming Session 2

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today we’re going to have a look at some great tips for running an effective brainstorming session.

Have you ever conducted a brainstorming session that simply goes nowhere? A few people throw out some ideas, but most participants seem uninspired or bored? You ask questions, but people don’t answer? Well, today I want to give you some tips for kickstarting the process and getting the juices flowing.

Okay, so you need to provide some kind of spark. But just saying “Okay everyone, we need to get the ideas flowing” is not actually going to inspire anyone. You need something different. One idea is to use visual stimulation. Bring a box of random objects that you can hold up or pass around. Or show the group random images, either ones you’ve chosen that relate to the topic or on sites like Pinterest and StumbleUpon. Looking at images or objects can send our thinking in new directions and trigger creative associations.

Another way to get ideas flowing is to get the room flowing. Try telling the group that every time you say “move!” everybody needs to stand up, walk around the room, and find a new seat. This gives people a very short break and a tiny bit of physical activity, which can be reinvigorating.

Moving seats also means that people are looking at the room, the flipchart, and everyone else from a new perspective. And finally, participants may find themselves sitting beside and talking with different people, which can inspire different ways of thinking. So every time you see people lagging a bit, yell “move” and see what happens.

Now, sometimes if you want good ideas from a group, you can ask them to think of bad ideas first. Yes, I’m serious. Sometimes we don’t know what we want or need, but we can figure it out by talking about what we don’t want or need. Here’s an example: say you’re with a group brainstorming better ways for your company to attract talented workers. A few good ideas have come out, but not nearly enough, and people are scratching their heads and getting frustrated.

This might be a good time to ask for “opposite thinking.” Try putting this question to the group, “Okay everyone, let’s change tack here and think of reasons people would not want to work for a company. What are things that talented workers don’t like in a job?” Believe me, when you ask questions about bad ideas or the worst examples, a lot of people suddenly have a lot to say.

And once you’ve got those bad or opposite ideas, you can just turn them around. So if someone says, “people really don’t like a work environment that is ugly and boring,” then you can turn it around and make “inspiring and clean workplace” one of your new ideas.

Okay, we’ve gone over some ways to get a whole group thinking, but there are some people who just don’t like working in large groups. They might not speak out confidently in a brainstorming session, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have good ideas. In fact, these quiet thinkers might be hiding some of the most fantastic ideas. So how do you draw those ideas out?

Well, one way is by providing a non-verbal input option. I’m talking about good old pen and paper. Make sure everyone has something to write with and on, and tell them that they’re free to provide their ideas that way. Or you can ask everybody to do this at certain points in the brainstorming. Then you collect the papers and write up the ideas on a board or flipchart.

You may also find that a great way to draw quiet people out is to reduce the group size. Break the larger group into smaller ones and assign them a task. When people reassemble in smaller groups, you may find they talk much more naturally and easily. And those thinkers aren’t as intimidated.

You can conclude this small group work by having one person from each group report what they discussed. And every time you do this small group work, change up the groups. You’ll find that group work is like a chemistry experiment. Combine different elements, and you’ll get vastly different outcomes.

Okay, so if you want those outcomes to be useful, there are several ways to get a group going and spark good ideas. You can use visuals, move people around, and ask for bad ideas. And to draw out even more ideas and get the quiet people going, you can invite written input and break the room into smaller groups. This all goes back to the idea of fostering creativity, energy and enthusiasm. And with these elements in your brainstorming session, you should get some great results.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.