Winston Churchill said that “The criticisms may not be agreeable, but it is necessary”. However, criticism is easy, constructive criticism is an art that few dominate. Criticizing for the sake of it can be extremely harmful. Constructive criticism, on the contrary, can become a point of support to grow and improve.
However, the main problem with criticism is that it challenges our sense of value. Criticism usually involves a judgment – and we all avoid feeling judged. Therefore, we often assume criticism as attacks or threats to our ego. And when we feel “forced” to defend our value, our ability to absorb and accept what they are telling us diminishes. Being on the defensive prevents us from reflecting on the possible value of criticism because we only think about organizing our counterattack.
At the same time, we need feedback to correct our actions and thoughts. Without this feedback, we risk enclosing ourselves in a psychotic vision. The solution to that apparent dichotomy between the desire to avoid criticism and the need to receive a feedback is found in constructive criticism.
How is constructive criticism?
A positive criticism – or constructive criticism – is one that draws attention to an aspect that we ignore or have overlooked and we could improve. Its main objective is provide us with an orientation or frame of reference to improve our behavior or the way of thinking.
That means that for a criticism to be positive or constructive, two elements must be combined:
• Providing behavioral options, leaving the person free to decide. A criticism that limits itself to pointing out the defect or error is not constructive since it doesn’t provide guidelines to change what is being criticized. Constructive criticism must contain at least an alternative behavior, a suggestion for improvement.
• Real possibility of improvement. For a criticism to be constructive, it’s not enough to have good intentions, it’s necessary to put yourself in the shoes of those who are criticized and ask yourself if that criticism will really do them good. In other words, if you criticize something that cannot be changed or that will only generate more anguish and confusion in that person, that’s a destructive criticism.
The 3 mistakes we make when criticizing
1. Not understanding that the way we say things is as important as what we say. A valuable message can be lost in a vacuum or even cause harm if expressed inappropriately. The tone and the right words, on the contrary, can positively predispose the person criticized, to be more receptive to the message.
2. Do not considering the other person. Even criticism made with the best intentions can hurt or be perceived as an attack. Criticizing without taking into account the perspective, circumstances and resources of the other person can do more harm than good.
3. Assuming that we are right. Criticizing thinking that our position and vision of things is the only possible is a big mistake that we often make. We need to start from the fact that our story is not necessarily true or more valuable, but is just an interpretation, opinion or suggestion. We are not possessors of the absolute truth. Nobody is.
How to make a constructive criticism?
1. Be self-critical: Before pointing the straw in someone’s eye, make sure you don’t have a beam in your own
The first is the first, it’s difficult to accept willingly a “constructive” criticism from those who didn’t “build” anything. Therefore, before giving advices, we must think if we’re qualified for it. We cannot criticize an overweight person and explain how to lose weight if we are overweight ourselves. We just don’t have credibility.
Therefore, before criticizing, we must ask ourselves: Are we criticizing a mistake that we ourselves make? Are we going to suggest to a person that he be more flexible when we’re not? Normally criticism is accepted with pleasure when it comes from a reliable and mature person. This means we cannot criticize from the thought: “Do what I say, but not what I do”.
2. Criticize results and behaviors, not people
“The best criticism is one that doesn’t respond to the will of offense but to freedom of judgment”, wrote Fernando Sánchez Dragó. We must understand that criticism is not a judgment, it’s an opinion. And we also need to understand that the fact that someone has done something wrong or made a mistake – from our perspective – doesn’t mean that they are incompetent.
If we want the criticism to be constructive, we must ensure that it doesn’t generate a defensive reaction, and for that we must focus on the behavior or the results, not to question the person as a whole making value judgments.
3. Use the right tone: Suggest, don’t impose
The essential objective of constructive criticism is to achieve a favorable change that benefits everyone, so it’s not about winning, but convincing. Therefore, intellectual intimidation and arrogance don’t work.
On the contrary, we must assume a more friendly and close tone so that our words are not perceived as an attack. It makes more sense to offer a feedback from intellectual humility than trying to impose an idea, better prefer dialogue instead of a monologue and chose curiosity instead of absolute certainty.
4. Be specific: Deepen, deepen, deepen
The more contextualized the criticism, the more likely it will be to reach a successful conclusion. Speaking in a general sense doesn’t usually help, it’s better to know exactly what we want to say and express it in a concise and clear way.
The more specific we are, the better, because the less the person feels attacked. For example, describing someone as “incompetent” is not even a criticism, it’s a full-blown offense. On the contrary, pointing out where he’s been wrong and explaining the reasons can help him improve. Therefore, we should avoid generalizations such as “You always behave like this” and be specific.
5. Be empathetic: Before criticizing, you have to understand
“Do not judge a person until you have walked two moons in his moccasins”, says one of the best Native Americans motivational quotes. Unfortunately, we apply very little that ancestral wisdom. Instead, we criticize from our point of view, without taking into account the needs, problems or capabilities of the other person.
Therefore, before speaking, it is convenient to pause for thinking how we would feel if someone would have told us what we’re about to say. Before criticizing, we need to open our minds and ask ourselves if that criticism can really contribute something valuable to the other person and if he really has the necessary resources to do what we’re suggesting. If not, positive criticism becomes destructive criticism.
6. Find the right moment: The right words at the right time make miracles
“As for criticism, do it in good time; don’t get into the habit of criticizing only after the event”, said Mao Tse-Tung. Unfortunately, in most cases the criticism comes once the mistake has been made, so that it is limited to a kind of weeping over the spilled milk. The ideal, however, is that criticisms have a preventive character.
If it is not possible, because facts have already accomplished, we must at least make sure that our words come at the right time. If the person has already realized his mistake, for example, and feels bad about it, an additional criticism would be only destructive. If we notice that the person is overwhelmed by emotions, it is also not the time to criticize as he cannot reflect rationally on our words. Therefore, for criticism to fall on fertile ground, it is essential that it arrives at the right time.
7. Provide suggestions and support: Do not close doors without opening new possibilities
If we want to make a constructive criticism, we should not only focus on what should “NOT” be done but also on what we think that “YES” can be done. When we point out what is wrong, but we don’t provide an alternative path, we provoke distress and anguish, so that the criticized person can feel lost.
To guide behavior, people need to know what might work and what not. If criticism refers only to one aspect, ignoring the other, it provides incomplete information, which is not useful to guide the action. In case we don’t have any solution at hand, then at least we can offer our support to find a solution together.
Frank A. Clark summed up perfectly the secret to constructive criticism: “Criticism, like rain, must be gentle enough to fuel a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”