Constructive Criticism Versus Aggressive Criticism

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?”

and

“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. :-)

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16 comments on “Constructive Criticism Versus Aggressive Criticism

  1. While I agree with most of this on principle, I have a very hard time with the “criticism sandwich” as I’ve seen it called. The “say a good thing. slip in the critique, then compliment the heck out of you so that you don’t think less of yourself” bit. While I agree it sounds nicer, it’s hard for me to separate the fluff from the actual points. Especially if it is solicited reviews, I would prefer to hear “This doesn’t work in this context. Here’s why. Here’s a possible way to fix it” than “, this part sucks, “. That isn’t to say that I think positive reinforcement isn’t important too. If something works really well in my writing, I want to hear that too, because it does suck to read a whole list of things which I’ve done “wrong”. I just think that expecting compliments when you give something to someone to review, is not always the most productive thing.

    When I review someone’s writing, I do try to tell them good things about it as well as things that could be improved. Positive reinforcement is really helpful. But I don’t believe in padding criticisms, especially constructive, solicited comments, with compliments. It just confuses things.

  2. I’ve never been in a situation where people offered excessive compliments so that I won’t feel bad when they critique everything else. I also don’t expect compliments and have never been on the receiving end of an endless supply of them either. Sounds nice, but I’d be prone to suspicion given that I just haven’t experienced this type of behavior. I do agree that it is helpful to hear what works, not just a focus on what doesn’t. If someone is offering a critique it helps to hear why it may not work and possible ways to fix it. I offered an example in my previous comment about how someone circled every single THE in one of my articles, which was not helpful, given that I was left to try to interpret what their issue was with using THE and then the fact that they didn’t offer anything else such as, in my opinion you used THE way too much and here’s a way to fix it. I’ve never heard of padding criticisms, so I doubt I’ve experienced that. I have experienced tons of “unhelpful” help. What’s really wild is that article was published, so I’m left to conclude that the editor didn’t feel that I over-used the word THE. Just crazy!

    Sounds to me like you’d be fair in your critiques Clarissa.

  3. “People can figure out what is good for them on their own.”

    These children that you spit, on as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.

    [1 billion free internet coolness points to first cool person to name this reference!]

    Realcomment: This is a very good post. If I get criticism that comes off as insulting or arrogant, I’ll take it as such and ignore any good advice couched in the assholery. But my partner is almost always constructive with her criticisms in the manner you advocate, and it has made it very difficult for me to put up resistance to changing an annoying or selfish habit. She always just sounds so darn conciliating and correct. :P

  4. Constructive criticism recognises me as a person. It’s as simple and complicated as that. I’ve had all sorts of criticism that doesn’t do so, ranging from, “You should be able to pull a rabbit out of hat, no matter what your personal circumstances, because the situation demands it!” to “You’re not conforming to my understanding of a perfect gender stereotype and that is wrong. You have to do it.”

    People need to have an implicit theory of general personhood if they are to criticise me constructively. That is the very minimum requirement. Secondly, if they ignore facts about me — stuff I’ve actually told them — and yet then attempt to criticise me personally, their criticisms are disqualified.

    Too much criticism makes idealistic and unrealistic demands. Implicitly they demand:”I want you to go back in time to make everything perfect, and then once it has become perfect, adopt a perfect attitude and tone towards everything around. You need to stop acting, thinking and behaving as if history had anything to do with you.”

    Obviously, persons can’t perform that feat — and perhaps I can do it even less than most.

    Other forms of criticism that don’t take personhood into account are those that demand one should not be angry in response to extremely infuriating situations: “You can get ahead better if you are not angry.”

    Yes — perhaps so. But it remains that I’m a person and consequently, I am angry.

  5. The other thing about giving and taking criticism is that it is much easier in both cases if the ego is not very involved. By “ego” I don’t mean self-esteem, but rather the sense of one’s individual, isolated identity as being individual and isolated.

    Japanese people take criticism much more easily, because they see it as useful for their progress, but Western people seem to see it as an attack on their identity.

    I’ve tried it both ways and nowadays I opt for the Japanese way as this is much kinder on myself and, furthermore, facilitates my progress.

    The problem with viewing criticism from the point of view of the isolated and individual ego is that criticism gains the power of absolute values. This is because the ego is very much stuck in the present. I believe that Freud might have said, the role of the ego is to orient us to the present. But, that is also its limitation. The present and its limitations are absolute. Therefore, criticism seems to present itself to us as an absolute condemnation of our absolute identity in the absolute nature of the present.

    What is lost in all of this is the sense of the self as a subject in transition. The process of transition is itself meaningful and valuable, whereas the criticism is only indicative of the kind of progress one is making.

  6. ‘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.’

    This is exactly how I felt during my MA. My supervisor was one of the most respected professors in my discipline. He would return essay and thesis drafts within a couple of hours, fully notated. I felt like I should be lucky to have him reading my work. But, in hindsight, he took a dislike to me the first time he met me. He told me that people from my first university always struggled with this course and that I shouldn’t expect to do as well as I had as an undergrad. When I started mooting thesis topics, he rejected every idea I had, telling me things like ‘feminism’s been done’ and ‘that’s exactly the kind of half-baked idea I’d expect from someone from [my first university]’. Eventually, we discovered a topic that he wasn’t violently opposed to but which I had no particular interest in. His comments on my drafts started off Ok, but quickly deteriorated into him telling me that I was disappointing, that my ideas were undergraduate ideas and that I couldn’t write. When I submitted an essay to another department and got the best final mark in the class, he told me that they were too easy on me, and that he wouldn’t have been so kind. In my final thesis draft, 1 week before our deadline, he actually swore at me.

    After we submitted but before we got our results, I had a meeting with him, where he told me that my work had been extremely disappointing and that I should have done a lot better. He told a friend of mine that he should be extremely proud of himself and that he’d set himself up perfectly for the schools he wanted to go to for PhD. I left with my confidence destroyed, and ended up not applying for PhDs because my supervisor had convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for academia. In the end, I received a distinction – the highest possible grade – while my friend who was so praised only got a merit. Nevertheless, I still feel incredibly self-conscious about my work and hate showing my writing to anyone because I feel stupid and incompetent. Even though I got a distinction, that doesn’t feel like an achievement anymore – I feel like it was some kind of crazy fluke which I don’t deserve, even though I know I worked incredibly hard and received fantastic feedback from other professors.

    Sorry, this is very long and ranty. But you’re absolutely right that criticism needs to be respectful and constructive. I’m hardly an anxious wallflower when it comes to my academic self-belief, but this whole episode has really set me back.

  7. In academia, postmodernists are those inclined to criticise me very harshly indeed, picking up on any very small points to indicate my lapses. I take this as a sign of their uncertainty in relation to the shamanistic paradigm I’ve invented. It superficially ressembles postmodernist tropes in some ways: playing with ideas of identity and change. It’s also radically unlike postmodernist theory and far more disruptive of bourgeois mores than its intellectual cousin pretends to be.

    • “In academia, postmodernists are those inclined to criticise me very harshly indeed, picking up on any very small points to indicate my lapses. I take this as a sign of their uncertainty in relation to the shamanistic paradigm I’ve invented. ”

      – That’s probably exactly what it is. People get defensive when they can’t understand something. And they get really defensive when what they always considered to be hugely subversive turns out to be a silly little thing.

  8. bloggerclarissa :
    – That’s probably exactly what it is. People get defensive when they can’t understand something. And they get really defensive when what they always considered to be hugely subversive turns out to be a silly little thing.

    I confess that I don’t understand what the song and dance is about with regard to postmodernism. For my thesis corrections, I was asked to do an analysis comparing and contrasting my shamanistic paradigm with postmodernism.

    I could have made a more thorough analysis had I not felt constrained by academic norms and expectations.

    1. Postmodernism is philosophical idealism, which maintains that changing concepts changes reality. Intellectual shamanism holds that concepts obscure reality and that one must, for periods at a time, get rid of concepts altogether, in order to see to what degree we live altogether too narrowly, on the basis of conceptualization of reality.

    2. Postmodernism has a false epistemology — or, more precisely, ideas about identity that are 50 per cent true and 50 per cent false. To presume you automatically understand the meaning of my words on face value, without plumbing any deeper, just because you know my gender and my country of origin and a little bit about its history gives you the same odds of being right as if you were to toss a coin and shout “heads”. By contrast, intellectual shamanism holds that only the individual can truly know him- or herself and that this kind of knowing is possible only at the point where they are so extremely alienated from themselves as others view them that they see the limitations of their formally-recognized identity from the outside of it. Only at that point, the point of shamanistic initiation through extreme alienation from oneself, is the individual in a position to become free.

    3. Postmodernism is an elitist academic discipline. Intellectual shamanism is embraced by outsiders to the system. If you were not an outsider when you set out on you intellectual voyage, you will be so by the end of it. “When I lay asleep, then did a sheep eat at the ivy-wreath on my head,—it ate, and said thereby: “Zarathustra is no longer a scholar.”
    It said this, and went away clumsily and proudly. A child told it to me.
    I like to lie here where the children play, beside the ruined wall, among thistles and red poppies.
    A scholar am I still to the children, and also to the thistles and red poppies. Innocent are they, even in their wickedness.
    But to the sheep I am no longer a scholar: so willeth my lot-blessings upon it!
    For this is the truth: I have departed from the house of the scholars, and the door have I also slammed behind me.”

    4. Shamanism embraces emotional nihilism as a means to escaping the shackles of conformity. Postmodernism embraces a superficial notion of transgression, which is supposed to assist the hopeful individual to climb up the ladder of the academic hierarchy.

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