Part of personal development is recognizing that there is room to grow. Sometimes, we may be lucky enough to realize on our own that there is something about ourselves we can improve. Some examples may be coming to the decision to make healthier food choices, addressing children in a different way during temper tantrums, or parking too close to the canopy rail. (Those are all personal experiences.) Other times, there may be things we do or say that we would not notice could be changed without the assistance of someone else. This can be in reference to our how we execute an exercise at the gym, how we pronounce a certain word, or even how we use too much garlic in a recipe. (Also all personal experiences…)
That is where constructive criticism comes in. I could just say ‘criticism’, but on its own that word tends to bring about a negative perspective. The definition of criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. Note that the definition specifies perceived faults. We will address that more later on. But if you’re feeling positive and spunky and throw the word ‘constructive’ into the mix, you get the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an opposing one.
Even if you are intending to tell someone they are wrong or they may need to change something, it can be done in a way that does not make them feel degraded or put down. I will discuss more in PART 2 of this article, but hang tight. We are just getting started here. Now buckle up, because it is story time.
Recently I was at a family reunion. My brother was parenting his daughter in a way that I did not agree with. After letting it boil inside of me for some time, I whipped out a snarky comment in front of our whole family. In my head, I was kind of hoping it would get my point across. What it did instead was demean him as a father and his way of parenting his own child. Of course, similar comments were returned to me (it isn’t a family reunion without some kind of tension, right?) and I had to remove myself from the room. In my own quiet seclusion, I recognized that my criticism was NOWHERE NEAR constructive. It was spoken as an attack and brought up in a way that made multiple people uncomfortable. I knew I needed to apologize. I ended up having a very uplifting and healthy conversation with my brother, where we talked about our different parenting styles and how neither is better or worse, just our own. He offered some of his thoughts on my parenting, and I did the same in return. By the end of the conversation, I wondered why I hadn’t tried to approach the topic this way earlier. It would have saved a lot of awkwardness and hurt feelings.
This is a great example of deconstructive criticism. The difference between constructive and deconstructive criticism was the way that the comments are delivered to the other person. Deconstructive criticism can be harmful to pride and make the receiver self-conscious and uncomfortable, which builds a situation unlikely to inspire change.
A few weeks after I had delivered my first baby girl, I was invited to one of those clothing pop up parties at a friends house. I was excited to get out of my crowded apartment and socialize with adults. I grabbed my fancy baby sling that a friend had given me, and took a lovely afternoon walk down the street to enjoy some good times.
As I walked in the door, I was approached by a woman I did not know. She grabbed my baby sling, and laughed at me. Her and another woman began to make comments about how I had no idea how to use a baby sling, everything was completely wrong, what was I thinking?
Thinking about this story still brings tears to my eyes. It may seem silly, but in that moment I was so looking forward to enjoying time not being stuck at home with a newborn baby. The fact that the first thing that happened when I walked through the door was that I was criticized and demeaned broke my heart. I was embarrassed, I felt stupid, and I could not pay attention to them when they tried to ‘teach me the right way’. The rest of that party was so uncomfortable for me, and I ended up leaving early.
Do I think the women at the party meant to crush my soul? Not at all. Did I intend to demean my brother and embarrass him? Of course not. But in both of these situations, the criticizer was insensitive in their approach which brought about a negative effect. I wanted to offer my ideas to my brother, the woman at the party wanted to offer her ideas to me, but no one in any of those situations was receptive to that kind of deconstructive criticism. Story time over: let’s get to the good stuff. How can we offer constructive criticism to others?
Sound corny? I love corny. But sometimes, love is all you need. Deconstructive criticism tends to happen when the giver is not emotionally invested in the critique. The women at the party had no idea how lonely I felt and how I was looking forward to social interaction. Their criticism to me seemed to be more based on their knowledge and how I did not measure up to their expectations. If they had approached me and said “Hi there, welcome to the party! My name is *blahblahblah* and your baby is cute. I notice your baby sling is a little loose, would you like a little help adjusting it?” things would have been way different. I would have loved to learn how to better my baby wrapping skills, and then maybe would have made a new friend. The difference between the two outcomes is that the giver is offering criticism out of love. You don’t have to love someone to be kind, but when that kindness shows it is expressing love.
If you see someone or something that you feel you could correct or improve, address it lovingly. Maybe you can help that person at the gym who might hurt themselves with their current form. Maybe you see someone on the side of the road changing their tire incorrectly and can stop and offer to help them make sure the tire is attached safely. If you truly want to help someone, that is an act of love.
I told you we would get there. As challenging as it may be in communication, you are not responsible for how your comments and actions are perceived. You may make a comment you feel is kind and helpful, but the person it was directed at may feel attacked or hurt. It is not appropriate to tell them they have no right to those feelings. Their perception of your words and actions are their own, and it is valid.
Have you ever started a new job, and during orientation they make you watch a weird video about sexual harassment? A man may approach a woman and tell her she is beautiful as a genuine compliment, and she claims sexual harassment. He did not mean to harass her, but it was perceived as harassment. This is why it is recommended you watch all comments that could potentially be perceived as harassment.
This same principle applies with criticism. It is not up to you to decide how others should perceive your words and actions. If something is taken a different way than intended, be sure to understand where they are coming from. Explain your intent. Explain your perception. A lot of times, you will learn more about the other person and strengthen the relationship along the way.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Me shouting a deconstructive comment at my brother in front of our entire family was absolutely NOT the right place to try and offer criticism. In this particular situation, a much better option would have been to talk in separate room. The location does not always have to be in a secluded area. If your child is attempting to craft something and has a cord wrapped around their neck, that location is right here, right now. The location and best approach can be determined for the scenario in play.
EAT A SANDWICH
You can’t actually eat this sandwich. A popular method of constructive criticism is the sandwich technique. Your critique lay between two soft pieces of fluffy comfort bread.
- Focus on the good. Compliment what was done well or what you admired for whatever you are critiquing. “Look at that baby, she is adorable! And I love the pattern on that baby sling.”
- Next is the actual criticism. What you think could be improved, what was done incorrectly, etc. “The sling looks a little loose, it can be tightened from here and make it much more comfortable for you and the baby.”
- Load up the top of the sandwich by reiterating what you admire and focusing on the good, and positive results that can come from the criticism. “You are a loving mom bringing your baby to his party. Hopefully the sling wrap will now make things a little easier for you to move around!”
That sandwich looks delicious. Now I am hungry…
ADDRESS THE SITUATION, NOT THE PERSON
|The towels are dirty.||Your bathroom is disgusting.|
|This project is a little late.||You are lazy and didn’t return your project on time.|
|There is a very strong garlic taste in these mashed potatoes.||ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME? THESE POTATOES ARE EVIDENCE OF YOUR INCOMPETENCE AS A COOK.|
Do not let constructive criticism become a personal attack. That method will not work and is not helpful to anyone, at all, ever.
Hopefully, these examples and suggestions can help someone to help someone else with their constructive criticism. Criticism can play a vital part in personal development and educating others as long as it is not deconstructive and damaging. Of course, this is also dependent on being able to properly receive constructive criticism. Join us next week for PART 2!