Reader Private Miss suggested that we discuss the differences between truly constructive criticism and manifestations of aggression that mask as such.
I have been thinking about this for a while and this is the definition of constructive criticism that I have arrived at. In order to be constructive, criticism has to be:
a) solicited. It’s one thing to ask a colleague to look at your writing and offer suggestions. It is a completely different thing to have the colleague approach you and say, “I have read your recent article and, let me tell you, there are so many problems with it. Here is a list I’ve made of what is wrong with the article.”
If you experience the need to offer people unsolicited criticism on a regular basis, then you definitely need to ask yourself what makes you have such high level of aggression. And, please, get off the “I’m just doing it for their good” mantra. People can figure out what is good for them on their own. Trying to improve people who haven’t asked you to do so is condescending and very aggressive.
b) What happens, though, if a person does something that bugs you but does not ask for feedback on their actions? In this case, in order to be constructive, criticism has to be about one’s own feelings instead of turning into a condemnation of the other person. Just appreciate the difference between the following scenarios:
“You keep forgetting to place a fresh toilet paper roll after the last one is finished. You are always so inconsiderate! It’s like you are not even living in this house. What am I, your servant?”
“You keep forgetting to place a fresh toilet paper roll after the last one is finished and it really bugs me. I then have to jump around with my pants down, hunting for a fresh one and that’s not very enjoyable. Please try to remember to place the fresh roll, OK?”
Constructive criticism is the kind that is genuinely aimed at improving the situation. And that cannot be achieved if the person who is criticized is put on the defensive and alienated. For instance, I could say to my neighbor:
“You keep throwing cigarette butts on my lawn. You are such a bad neighbor. Were you brought up in a forest or something? Did your parents not teach you any manners at all? If you are used to living in a pigsty, I’m not. Don’t you understand how rude you are being?”
These are very valid sentiments but do you really think they are conducive to making the neighbor listen to me? Now compare it to the following:
“You keep throwing cigarette butts on my lawn. And I really don’t like how this makes the lawn look. The butts become soggy and I hate having to touch them when I try to remove them. So if you could stop doing that, I’d really appreciate it. And, look, as a neighbor, I am probably doing things that bug you every once in a while. Feel free to tell me whenever that happens, OK?”
I can tell you from experience that the second approach really works while the first one really doesn’t.
c) expressed in a respectful way. I once submitted my writing to a professor who made many criticisms of my work. Every single one of those criticisms was fair. My writing was bad and it needed a lot of improvement. However, those criticisms were delivered in such an offensive and humiliating manner that I didn’t even manage to process the constructive aspect of them. I was so hurt that I couldn’t bring myself to look at the suggestions this professor made.
As every teacher knows, if you want your criticism to sink in, you have to observe a certain formula. First, you tell the student what it is that they are doing right, “You have a talent for organizing your ideas clearly and coherently. You also have many original insights.” Then, you transition into the criticism: “However, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Here is what I suggest you do. . .”
A constructive criticism never becomes a wholesale condemnation of a person criticized as a human being. Statements that begin with “Why do you always have to. . .” are not constructive. This is an especially pernicious strategy to adopt with your loved ones. People who are close to us are a lot more likely to see our criticism of their actions as a rejection of them as human beings and to be hurt by it. This is why whenever I want to express a criticism of, say, what my sister or N. do, I frame it the following way:
“Look, you know I adore you, right? You are the best person in the world and I will always love you and support you no matter what. You know this, don’t you? However, the thing X you did bothers me. Let’s talk about it because I want to better understand your reasons for doing it.”
d) if it isn’t welcome, it should not be reiterated. If a person chooses to disregard your criticism, that’s their right. You need to respect people enough to acknowledge their right to make their own choices. Nobody is obligated to live the way you want them to. And if their actions bug you so much that you just can’t let it go, then you always have the right to minimize your contact with this person or remove them from your life altogether.
Feel free to offer your insights into this subject and your criticisms of this post. I have now officially solicited said criticisms.