The Myth of Constructive Criticism
Here is my take on constructive criticism: there's no such thing. It's a mythical creature that was created by those who would put criticism under the guise of something constructive, so as to reduce the risk of conflict while maintaining a position of superiority.
Sometimes the perpetrator is successful, and is able to knock his/her opponent down a notch without being detected. Other times, the critic gets sloppy, and forgets to even include anything constructive.
But the truth is that criticism is criticism, period.
There are several different things that are often associated with "constructive criticism", but when used properly, have no critical aspect to them at all:
- Feedback - usually answers a request for it, and includes what is good as well as suggestions for improvement.
- Suggestions - usually unsolicited, suggestions for improvement, or just suggestions of things to consider
What this is really all about is communication. You wish to communicate your thoughts to another person about that person. In the end, you will never succeed unless you improve your own skills at two things first:
tact \ˈtakt\ : a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense
Tact is really an art. Some are naturals, and can say just about anything to anyone in a way that causes no offense. Some suck at it, and can't say a simple thing to someone without it coming out like a blatant insult.
I have been working on tact for a long time, and will probably be working on it for the rest of my life. But I have gotten better at it over time. There are several factors that go in to making a tactful statement:
- Consider the audience - the way I say something to my wife is much different from the way I would say something to one of my buddies.
- Say it in your head first - you get faster at this over time.
- Consider your approach - come right out and say it, or ...?
Tact: Consider the Audience
This is fairly self explanatory, but it's worth talking about a bit.
Some people, when expressing a comment, will say it the same way to anyone no matter who they are. Let take Mr. Dolt, for example. His buddy came out to the billiards club wearing some pants that looked quite cheesy. "Nice friggin' pants!". That got a laugh out of everyone, and the friendly jabs went back and forth all night.
Later that week, Dolt and his wife were getting ready to go out to dinner with some friends. As his wife was getting ready, he noticed that he didn't really like the pants his wife had chosen. "Nice friggin' pants! Ha!". Because he is a dolt, he expected the same comraderous response he got the last time he used that comment. Instead, his wife gave him a look that killed him on the spot. He collapsed, shuddered a bit, and eventually broke out into flames... poor Mr. Dolt.
Poor Dolt could have said 100 different things to get his wife not to wear those pants. "I really like that shirt, but I don't know if those pants really go with it?"; "Why don't you wear those other pants I like that make your ass look really good?"; or even "" (yea, that's "", as in don't say anything, you friggin' dolt)
Mr. Dolt didn't consider his audience.
Tact: The Dry Run
I'm sure you, like most people, have at one time or another, said "that didn't come out the way I meant it!". Well, guess what, sparky! It still came out. And the damage was already done, wasn't it? Oh, if we could only rewind time and rephrase! If only we could somehow practice saying it before we actually said it.... A dry run...
.... oh, wait. That second one it actually possible. It's actually quite revolutionary. And finally, after several thousands of years of spoken communication, it's here. Ready? It's called Think Before You Speak.
That's right! And you too can think before you speak. With just a little practice, some dedication, and patience, it can happen!
All you have to do is this: say it in your head first. That's it! Say it to yourself, in your head. Try it now! How does it sound? Does it make you want to wring your own neck? Punch yourself in the face? Lash out with a verbal tirade? Well, then, my friend, you may want to consider rephrasing.
Tact: Consider Your Approach
This is an extension of "Say it in Your Head First". While there are different ways of phrasing something, there are also usually completely different things you can say that will get you the effect that you want. This is called the "approach".
Let's check in with our friend, Mr. Dolt. While getting ready for dinner out with friends, Dolt found himself disliking his wife's pants. We all know the approach he took to this situation, but lets go over some of the possible alternatives:
- Come right out and say it - "I don't like those pants". That's it. Simple, huh? This can often be the simplest, least troublesome approach. Don't over think it, don't dress it up with suspicious language. It's plain and simple, "I just don't like those pants". It has nothing to do with how SHE looks, just the pants. SHE is the most beautiful woman in the world (feel free to say this, too), but THOSE pants don't allow that beauty to come through the way they should.
- Make fun of your wife's pants - This did not end well for Mr. Dolt. This approach will only work for very special relationships where this kind of teasing is commonplace. Everyone else should avoid this like the swine flu.
- Butter her up, then break the news - This is somewhat related to alternative #1. If the person at the receiving end of the comment is ultra-sensitive, or has the potential to be defensive because of the situation, such as a group setting, then butter her up! "That shirt looks really great on you, but those pants don't do you justice". "Hun? Your ass is WAY too hot for those pants". But use this technique with caution, or you might be late for dinner! ;-)
- Suggest an alternative - This technique can be a little sneaky, but can often spare some feelings. You don't always have to point out a flaw or mention something you don't like. Sometimes it's enough to just float an alternative or two and see what happens. "Did you consider trying this?" "What do you think about this idea?" "What about those pants you wore to so-and-so's a couple weeks ago?" This obviously would be more useful to Mr. Dolt if he actually knew of a couple of pairs of pants his wife owned. But he's a dolt.
(Hopefully, it's clear to everyone out there that this entire section has nothing to do with pants. The same approaches apply to any situation.)
I know this has happened to you, so don't try to deny it. You make a simple comment, some "constructive criticism", and the next thing you know the person is looking at you and talking to you like you're some kind of arrogant prick. What the heck!?!? You were just trying to help, right? Sheesh. Some people...
Here's what to do to deal with people like this:
- Stop talking - This requires not hearing the sound of your own voice. It's tough, but you'll get used to it.
- Start listening - This requires pulling your head out of your ass long enough to hear the other person.
It's actually a pretty normal disorder. We all suffer from it from time to time. It can happen to the best of us. If left unchecked, it can get pretty serious. It's called foot-in-mouth disease.
We all start to feel a little too smart for our own good once in a while. We start offering up morsels of our vast wisdom, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. We're helping people. We're sharing!
Well, guess what, genius! Git off yer cocky high horse and come back down to reality, 'cause you don't know every damn thing! You're not always right. Sometimes you're wrong. And sometimes you just plain don't know what you're talking about.
All that helping people and sharing; after a while, we became over confident, and the advice starts to come out prematurely, and we end up with our foot in our mouth. This is also sometimes referred to as premature don't-know-jack-ulation.
The solution to this whole problem is really based on the concept of understanding what the other person is trying to say, then try to get them to understand what you are trying to say. This is talked about in the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as "seek first to understand, then to be understood".
This is usually pretty straight forward. Try to understand the other person's point, their perspective, or their situation before offering your advice, feedback, or opinion. Doing this gives you the proper perspective to convey your thoughts in a more relevant way. It really helps you, and it helps you help them. And you might be surprised at how often you completely change what you were originally going to say!
"Are we even talking about the same thing?"
"Okay. Try to understand the other person. That's easy enough..."
Whooooaaaahhh!!! Hold yer britches, there cowboy! It ain't always that easy.
One of the toughest things about it is that you are forced to communicate with this inefficient medium called "language". Words in a language can often have several different meanings, and slight semantic differences can lead to confusion, misinterpretation, and unnecessary conflict.
I have left meetings with an interpretation of what was said that was completely different from a teammate who sat right next to me.
Differences in semantics, in subtle variations of the meaning, can be hard to detect, and can cause many problems if they are not discovered. I work with a guy who seems to have a knack for interpreting things differently than the rest of the team. We will spend hours discussing something, only to finally realise that we actually agree!!! The only thing we disagree on is the exact definition of a single word!
This kind of thing can go on for weeks, and if not caught early, will eventually be lost. No one will remember the initial misunderstanding; people can barely remember to reply to a stinkin' email, for cryin' out loud! But that misunderstanding, that small misinterpretation that nobody noticed, will have planted a seed of negativity that can be detrimental to a relationship in the long run.
This probably happens WAY more than you think. Think about it the next time you have a disagreement. But it can be fixed early. Just make sure you're both talking about the same thing!
This went a bit beyond the topic of "constructive criticism", and into general thoughts about communication with others. But, it all applies. These are all the types of things I work on regularly, because effective communication is an important part of my job and my personal life.
All of the things I've talked about have come from personal experience in building (or troubleshooting) my work relationships, as well as my personal relationships.
Good luck, out there!
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