Most of us have faced an assessment of our abilities and behaviour during our lives, sometimes negative, but, hopefully, more often than not, we have received constructive criticism. Knowing how to give and take constructive criticism in a way that is helpful can be a minefield, however, according to Gregg Walker from Oregon State University, by learning how to rebuke kindly, it becomes much easier. According to the author, Leo Babauto, we should consider, “Would I like to hear that about myself and, if so, what would be the nicest way to say it?”
How we can benefit from and be more responsive to kind criticism
Whether at work or in one’s personal life, having someone criticise with kindness will have a much more positive effect and result on us. According to a study by the consultant Marcial Losada and academic Emily Heaphy, effectiveness within a business is measured by financial performance, customer satisfaction and feedback ratings of the team members. The related question is whether positive feedback actually and truthfully, informs us that we are on track, or is constructive criticism and comments a better way to help us when we are perhaps digressing in a non-positive way?
Heaphy and Losada discovered that positive comments, such as, “That’s a great idea”, is a better way to begin offering constructive criticism, rather than negative comments like, “We shouldn’t even consider doing that”, however, negative feedback can also act as a wake-up call, in that it will grab the person’s attention. According to “The Joy of Criticism”, by Peter Fisk, a Ph.D scientist, criticism is actually information, which, when used in the right way, will help us to improve. He uses the “spinach-on-the-teeth” example, where, at a function, you notice that someone you know has got some spinach stuck in their teeth. The dilemma is should you tell them or should you pretend you haven’t seen it? If you don’t tell them, then they will spend the rest of the evening looking ridiculous, so it must be better to criticise with kindness, as they will surely be grateful and remove it immediately.
Dealing with negative criticism
Peter Fiske goes on to explain that, when giving constructive criticism, it is important to be careful as being offensive can be hurtful, damage self-esteem and can make the person defensive rather than open to suggestion. Think about the words that are being used: , for example, to tell someone that they are lazy gives no room for manoeuvre, as do negative statements such as, “you could” or “you should”. The critic intends only to help and, if the negative criticism seems unpalatable, then think about why it is being said, as, according to Peter Fisk, not all constructive criticism can be given in a supportive and encouraging manner.
Zen Habits states that criticism can sometimes, even when given for the right reasons, make us angry; instead, we have to learn to use it as a way to improve. However, sometimes it can be given for the wrong reasons, such as in a mean-spirited way, using unacceptable language or very personal criticism like, ”you are useless at your job” or “the way you dress is not suitable”.
Try not to get angry – instead ask the person why they are saying these things rather than taking it as a personal attack.
It may be that they will point out a piece of work that you did or will explain the necessary dress code, allowing you to then take it as constructive criticism rather than negative. Some people find it very difficult to criticise kindly; being tactful, as pointed out in this article by Mind Tools is something that we have to learn as we go through life.
When criticism is given, it can be upsetting, as some people will find it distressing and it can even lead to tears. This is why it is important to always criticise with kindness, no matter how serious the problem might be. It can make us feel that we have failed and are not living up to expectations, whether it be in our personal or working life; either way, the effect can be traumatising when not given in the correct way.
Criticise with kindness
- Be impersonal – talk about actions rather than the individual
- Do not be on the attack – take a more subtle approach
- Offer positive and specific suggestions
- Instead of telling the person that they are wrong, talk about a better approach or solution
- Criticise in a way that will lead to a meaningful discussion
Whilst it is best to criticise kindly, it should also be specific and without reducing self-esteem. Think about what you are saying and how you are saying it, as is cleverly summed up in a quote from Frank Clark, an American lawyer and politician who died in 1936.
Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.
Know how to portray kindness when being critical
The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, wrote very pragmatically about “just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?”. Dennett considered the relevancy of this in today’s culture of “everyone is a critic”. He is the author of ‘Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking’ which includes ‘ the dignity and art-science of making mistakes’, where he provides an insight into how to avoid making a fool out of one’s opponent.
These rules were originally written by the well-known social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport – discover more about the man here: . Daniel Dennett has summarised these rules to describe how to compose a successful commentary using constructive criticism:
- Try to explain your target’s position in such a way that it is clear and fairly said. This way, the response can be, “Thanks, I wish I had thought of putting it that way”
- List all the points that you agree with, especially if they are not a part of the general, overall consensus of opinion
- Mention anything that you have learned from your target, thus offering encouragement
By following these pointers, you will then be in a better position to offer a rebuttal followed by constructive criticism. This brings us to the next point of understanding the importance of knowing how to criticise constructively. The Science Mag recommends that, as the critic, we should be aware of the type of person we are criticising, helping us to take into account their feelings, actions and emotions. It is also important to analyse, with subjectivity, your observations, as this will help you to criticise with kindness and to add a solid and fair criteria to your sympathetic, well-meaning constructive criticism.