Constructive criticism

Most human beings are past masters in criticizing. We seem to be programmed that way. Rare is the individual who is willing to accept and use criticism for his growth. Criticism is exactly the opposite of praise which all of us want to receive in abundance but are not liberal in giving. Generally, the complaining and criticizing we do every day far exceed the approvals and praises we give. We are really not to blame because we are all unconscious victims of a mind that seems to be conditioned towards criticism and fault finding. But, having realized this, we can choose to consciously re-educate our minds.

Though praise is a great motivator it does not mean that we can do away with criticism. When someone has to be ticked off, they obviously cannot be praised. There is a time for praise and a time for criticism. When you have to criticize legitimately you should not avoid it, however unpleasant it may be. But criticism should be constructive if it is to have the power to modify a person’s behavior. It should not leave bruised egos behind.

Criticism is generally viewed by the receiver as an attack on his character and self-image. It is perceived as an insult. The mind will protect the self-image it has nurtured at all costs and it will react quite violently to any form of criticism as a defense mechanism. The mind lives through the self-image and it will not tolerate any tearing down of this image. We, therefore, need to honor this aspect of the human mind and go about our criticism in such a manner that the self-image is not tarnished. Lowering a person’s self-image will anyway not make them more productive. Instead, it may make them hostile.

Feedback

Firstly, we need to get rid of the term ‘criticism’ and replace it with a less heavily loaded word like ‘feedback’. If you begin your sentence with ‘I would like to give you feedback’, it would be received more favorably. The word criticism has a negative flavor to it while feedback sounds more positive and less threatening.

Some of the more common critical phrases that are used in everyday communication are:

· Don’t you know how to perform a simple task like this

· This is absolutely shoddy work

· I think you are not fit for this kind of work

· I feel you have a serious attitude problem

· Why don’t you use some common sense?

· You are very clumsy

· There is no point in telling you anything

· Can’t you do anything right?

· You will never come up in life if you carry on like this

All these forms of communication are not going to get us anywhere because they character assassinate and are only going to demotivate the recipient.

Be specific

Feedback should not be too vague and generalized. There is no point saying — you are no good. No good at what? It has to be specific and pertinent to the current situation. You have to pinpoint exactly what it is that you are not pleased about and the behavioral change you expect.

Make it private

Criticism or feedback has to be a private affair whether it be to an employee, spouse or children. It cannot become a public matter for all to hear. If the criticism is harsh and in front of others you would never be forgiven. The memory would linger for a lifetime in some sensitive souls. Criticism has to be a one-on-one confidential conversation without anybody intruding. It is always better to have a face-to-face meeting when offering constructive criticism.

Immediacy

Feedback has to be as soon as practicable and not long after the event. Don’t wait till matters become worse. If the negative behavior or attitude or carelessness is allowed to grow it will become that much more difficult to correct it later on. Especially with children if they are not told about their unacceptable behavior immediately they will think that there is nothing wrong with their behavior and will repeat it in the future.

Timing is also important. It is better to offer feedback in the morning than in the evening when everyone is tired and the last thing they want at the end of the day is to get fired. The person should also be in a proper frame of mind to receive the feedback, otherwise, it just won’t sink in. It is the same with family situations. Choose the time and place and ensure a proper frame of mind. For instance, you are not expected to criticize your spouse on important occasions like wedding anniversaries or birthdays, or festival days. And definitely not in front of the children or relatives.

Offering suggestions

After blasting an employee for his poor performance don’t leave him in the lurch where he has to find his own way to improve. If he knew how, in all probability, his performance would not have been poor. Offer suggestions on how he can rectify the situation or improve himself to ensure that the same situation does not repeat itself. The suggestion should also be something that is within his capacity to implement. If the person can do nothing about the problem, criticism will just make things worse.

Similarly, we commonly tell children ‘If you want to come first in class you must study ‘hard’ and leave it to them to decipher how to go about it. The very word ‘hard’ is going to make it hard for them to study which in fact should have been fun. Instead, you would have to go into the nitty-gritty of the mechanics of studying and pinpoint where exactly improvement is needed.

Children are hypersensitive to any form of criticism and receptive to all kinds of praise. Tears will flow from their eyes almost instantaneously when criticized. And then we will tell them not to cry. Judicious use of both praise and criticism will bring out the best in them. It is always better to make them realize their own mistakes through proper questions rather than point them out bluntly as though we have scored a victory over them. However, there is no hard and fast rule on this as each child reacts differently. Instead of going by some textbook theory, one has to experiment to find out the kind of feedback they are receptive to and the kind of criticism they are sensitive to.

We statements

After pinpointing the lapses and identifying areas where correction is needed, when concluding, instead of I or You statements try the We statement. ‘I want you to…’ or ‘you must understand….’ are common ways of talking that are more in the nature of commands. Instead, say ‘let us see how we can improve the performance….’. Similarly, instead of telling your wife ‘You don’t know how to bring up the children’ which will only evoke a counteroffensive you could say ‘let us see what we can do to enhance the growth of our children’.

Action not person

This is an age-old rule to be observed in every form of critical communication. Criticize the action and not the person. The fact that someone is not up to the mark in one aspect of work does not make him incompetent in all areas of life. Don’t say ‘you are useless’ instead say ‘you seem to have not applied your mind to this particular task’.

Constructive criticism should also be short and not turned into a lecture. Repeating the same point again and again will really put people off. Criticize one action at a time. Don’t take on too many mistakes committed in one sitting. Otherwise focus will be lost. Don’t also dig out old skeletons from the past and point out previous mistakes.

Feedback should be made into a learning experience for both the giver and the receiver. After the end of the feedback, session listen to the other person and what he has to say. Let it not be a one-sided match. Normally people who are criticized will justify whatever they did. Don’t lose your cool but listen to these justifications. You could probably make it clear that ultimately what everyone is interested in at the end of the day is results and the focus should be shifted to how those results could be achieved. Also, ask them to repeat your feedback so that there is no miscommunication. Make sure you follow up on the feedback after an appropriate lapse of time as to whether it has had the desired effect. If this is not done your feedback will be brushed aside the next time.

Marriage

In primary relationships, the better half is normally taken for granted and we think we can dish out criticism at will and it won’t be taken amiss. This is a mistaken assumption and is the cause of much heartburn. There is a subtle power play going on in such relationships and it is important not to fall prey to the machinations of the ego. The feedback should be given in such a manner that you are perceived as a friend, not as an enemy. The choice of words and, more importantly, the tonality of voice and body language is of utmost importance. Women are sensitive to and pick up body language more than men. So, it is better to choose the words carefully and then speak instead of bursting out at once. It is important to remember that there is no battle to be won, no victory to be gained in primary relationships. When the other loses so do you because you are both two sides of the same coin called marriage.

We also have the tendency to couching our criticism in sarcastic language in such relationships. Sarcasm hits at a very low level and can be very wounding. Instead adopting a questioning mode is more profitable. If you say — Do you think what you did was appropriate? then you allow the other to introspect within themselves and allow for self-correction.

Accepting criticism

Accepting criticism is a learned behavior. It will not come naturally and has to be self-taught. Nobody is going to teach it to us either. The sooner we learn it the better for us. The ability to accept criticism has great growth potential. We must first assume that all criticism is valid and necessary to correct some fault in us. This is all the more so if we have been criticized by other people on the same issue. Feedback is like a magic mirror that lets you see what others are seeing in you that you yourself cannot see. The mind has the capacity to block out unpleasant parts of ourselves from our consciousness, which only others can see. If, in your opinion, the person making the criticism knows what he is talking about it should not be shrugged off. Most of us fear criticism because it could be true. Taking criticism in the right spirit is tough but it could be turned to our own advantage. Try not to become defensive and emotional. Try to remain as calm as possible and don’t cut off the person with excuses and explanations immediately. Hear them out fully. Thank them for their feedback. They are also doing an unpleasant job but have to do it nevertheless. Then think about the feedback with a calm mind later on. If there is even an iota of truth in the feedback accept it. You can also rephrase the criticism in your own language for better understanding.

An easy way to be able to accept criticism is to ask for feedback voluntarily. When such feedback is given, there would be less room for surprises and a constant dialogue would be kept up. Another method is to become one’s own critic through self-introspection and by measuring one's performance against preset benchmarks.

Never deny or ignore any criticism unless it comes from a person who is in the habit of putting everyone down for his own egoistic needs. There are some vicious and strong characters in this universe who relish stripping and demolishing other people’s self-esteem without any care or concern. Handling them is no easy matter. To keep your sanity intact you will need a lot of cool and compassion when you interact with them. Unless we manage to keep our energy levels high such people can disempower us completely. But they also could be right in their assessment of you though their mode of communication may be unpalatable. Try to separate the criticism from the critic. Don’t mix them up. The criticism is also not directed at your total self but only on one aspect of you that requires improvement. Isolate the criticism to that one aspect of your behavior and don’t let it envelop the whole of you.

Just like praise, giving and accepting criticism is something we all need to master to become effective individuals. It requires conscious effort and awareness and one has to expect resistance from the ego which stands guard protecting the self-image it has assiduously built up. But it is an effort that is well worth it.

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