Most of us will have faced an assessment of our abilities and behaviour during our lives, probably at work. Sometimes we will have received some negative feedback, but, hopefully, more often than not, we will have been given constructive criticism.
However, according to Gregg Walker from Oregon State University, knowing how to give and take criticism constructively can be a minefield: those giving it are unsure on the best way to deliver it and those on the receiving end of such feedback can often become defensive.
But by learning how to rebuke kindly, giving feedback that is meant to improve someone can become much easier. And, according to the author Leo Babauto, before giving constructive criticism it's important firstly to consider, “Would I like to hear that about myself and, if so, what would be the nicest way to say it?”.
Whether at work or in one’s personal life, having someone criticize with kindness will have a much more positive result. 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're on track, or is constructive criticism and comments a better way to help us when we're perhaps digressing in a non-positive way. Losada and Heaphy discovered that positive comments such as, “That’s a great idea, but...” is a better way to begin offering constructive criticism, rather than negative comments like, “We shouldn’t even consider doing that.”
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Constructive criticism in the workplace Jacob Lund/shutterstock/
However, giving 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, should help us to improve our behaviour.
Fisk 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'll spend the rest of the evening looking ridiculous, so it's probably better to criticize with kindness, as they will surely be grateful and remove the offending food immediately.
Fisk goes on to explain that, when giving constructive criticism, it's important to be careful, as being offensive can be hurtful, damage self-esteem and can make the person defensive rather than open to suggestion.
“When giving constructive criticism, it's important to be careful, as being offensive can be hurtful and damage self-esteem.”
So, when giving constructive criticism, think carefully about the words you want to use. For example, to tell someone that they're lazy gives them no room for manoeuvre, as does 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's being said, as, according to Fisk, not all constructive criticism can be given in a supportive and encouraging manner.
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 ourselves. 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're useless at your job” or “the way you dress is not suitable”. Try not to get angry if you're on the receiving end of such negative feedback. Instead, ask the person why they're saying these things rather than taking it as a personal attack.
10 ways to give constructive criticism EYN.tv/YouTube
It may be that they will go on to 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 feedback. Some people find it very difficult to criticize kindly. However, 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 for some people. This is why it's important to always criticize with kindness, no matter how serious the issue. Criticism can make us feel that we've failed and are not living up to expectations, whether it be in our personal or working life. Either way, the effect can be traumatizing when not given in the correct way.
Whilst it's best to criticize kindly, it should also be specific and without reducing someone's self-esteem. Think about what you're saying and how you're saying it, as is cleverly summed up in a quote from American lawyer and politician Frank Clark: “criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots.”
Learn to criticize with kindness © shutterstock/suteren
The philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote 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 where “everyone is a critic”. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking which includes a section entitled ‘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. Dennett has summarised them to describe how to compose a successful commentary using constructive criticism:
This leads to another point of understanding the importance of knowing how to criticize constructively. Science recommends that – as the critic – we should be aware of the type of person we are criticizing, helping us to take into account their feelings, actions and emotions.
Finally, it's also important to analyze, with subjectivity, your observations, as this will help you to criticize with kindness and to add a solid and fair criteria to your sympathetic, well-meaning constructive criticism. ●
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