Constructive x destructive criticism
Destructive criticism is the language of low self-esteem.
Giving or receiving criticism with dignity and compassion can at times come as a challenge. Everyone is able to recognise the benefits of seeing through a different perspective. Criticism fosters learning and self-improvement, be it in our personal or professional lives. When the moment of sharing a different opinion presents itself, however, criticism may feel difficult to handle gracefully.
As criticism has the potential to hurt and influence others in a powerful way, the responsibility of the giver remains the greatest. Our real intentions often get lost in the murky pool of human relationships. What may feel as a will to ‘help others’ can in true fact emerge from a deep, long-standing desire to control and manipulate. Even in cases when we are motivated by nothing than genuinely good intentions, communicating criticism with respect and consideration remains a fine skill.
Unfortunately, we are unable to mind read or predict someone else’s reaction to what we have to say. Our individual experiences with criticism have their unique way of shaping our perception. What may be OK for some may be damaging to somebody else. The best way to approach criticism is to see it as a double-sided coin. On one side it is constructive (good, productive and compassionate), while the other carries destructive features (it is ineffective, unproductive and selfish).
Constructive criticism is raised in a calm and collected manner. When you are exposed to constructive criticism, it feels like you are just hearing an added piece of information. Constructive criticism does not change the flow of conversation dramatically. It sounds like an offer of help that is too tempting to be refused. It feels like an invitation to become part of something good:
A: I know of some excellent books to help you write that piece, would you like me to show them to you?
B: Are you OK with making that pie? Do you think you could do with some help?
C: I’ve got some practical tips to improve your time-management skills, would you like to hear about them?
Destructive criticism sounds like a personal attack. It is emotionally charged and coloured with terms and expressions of negative connotation that make you feel inadequate and out of place. It changes the harmonious flow of conversation into something unnerving and unpredictable. Feeling cornered, you immediately switch to defensive mood without even realising it.
A: That has been poorly written. It doesn’t make any sense! It looks as if you haven’t either read or understand anything about the subject.
B: You don’t have a clue what you’re doing, do you? Without my help that is going to fall apart!
C: I can’t believe you’re late on that project. Why is it so hard for you to respect a deadline?
As it is raised in order to genuinely help the receiver, constructive criticism is given with tact and respect, acknowledging the person’s skills and abilities that are already in place. It is rich in detail, clear and specific, so you know exactly what you have done wrong or could do with improvement. It is practical and straightforward; contributing positively towards enhancing the receiver’s learning experience:
A: I see what you mean by raising that point there; it is worth exploring it in greater depth. What about adding some examples to make it clearer to the reader? You could start with something like…
B: You mixed your ingredients well, you just need to butter that tin otherwise the base is going to stick on the bottom. You can still do it before putting it into the oven, but you will have to move the dough into another bowl first.
C: I like the fact that you have managed to get everyone motivated to work on our priorities. Since we are quite tight on time with this particular client, it would speed things up even further if you…
Destructive criticism, conversely, is exaggerated and vague. As its aim is to intimidate, belittle or even humiliate, destructive criticism lacks information that may be of learning value to the receiver. Instead of its focus being on specific behaviours, destructive criticism works as to discredit the entire person:
A: That’s absolutely awful. How can you expect anyone to understand that? You will have to do it all again!
B: That’s a disaster! It’s not going to cook properly! Baking is really not your thing!
C: I’d have expected so much more from someone in your position. Anyone would think you could have done much better than that by now!
Be it at home with your spouse or children, at work with your colleagues or employees or out with friends or extended family, sharing your views with respect and compassion can do wonders to everyone involved. Productive criticism helps people connect and grow. Taking time and patience to elaborate on your assessments always pays off in the end. Even if the concept of productive criticism has never had real application in your own life, you can start a new trend by using it with the people around you. It is never too late to incorporate positive changes into your behaviour. You can take over the rules of the game and turn criticism into a win-win experience.