Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Art of Constructive Criticism

Yesterday, I had a lengthy chat with a friend, on the subject of criticism.  It was one of those "lightbulb moments," during which I suddenly realised that I have big thoughts on this particular topic.  Thoughts that, seeing as I'm armed with a blog and a free half-hour, I would like to share...

Criticism is a part of life.  It's something we all need to get used to and I genuinely believe that criticism is necessary.  You don't learn anything if you're constantly told that you're great, after all.  You can't grow as a person, or improve on a skill if it's never suggested to you that you might need to.

So, I am pro-criticism, on the whole.  I think it's not only important, but, done properly, it's kinder to criticise than not to.  Before you wonder whether I've gone all hard and am advocating knocking down your loved ones, consider a child whose parents don't believe in criticism.  Imagine that kid, spending his or her earliest years being constantly told that their behaviour is 100% perfect and that their way of doing things is definitely the right way.  Imagine the shock that child will get when they enter the real world and realise that not everyone will agree with their opinions, or with the way they choose to operate.  Isn't it better to prepare the people we love - whatever their age - for the fact that they aren't perfect (none of us are) and that some people are going to disagree with them?!

Equally, if someone wants to learn and improve on a skill, they need to be told when they're going wrong.  You need only watch The X Factor or similar talent shows, to see the contestants who've probably either never been told that they need to improve their technique, or who've heard criticism and chosen to ignore it (and that's a whole other blog post, right there...).  

This gif applies in so many ways.

The way those wannabe singers crumple when finally faced with someone willing to criticise their vocal abilities, is one of the biggest reasons I can't stand watching shows like The X Factor.  Is it really kinder to keep telling someone they're brilliant at something when they're not, only to eventually see them humiliated on TV for "entertainment," or should we have been honest in the first place?!

So, sure.  I am on board the criticism train.  Choo-choo.

But, as my friend and I agreed yesterday, that criticism has to be constructive.  

As the good Doctor rightfully says in the gif above, it's easy to criticise.  But that means it's easy - really, really easy - to get it wrong when we do.

What criticism should be about is helping a person to improve on something.  Whether it's encouraging them to practise more at a skill, or actually suggesting a way to become a better person entirely, criticism should be about building on something.  NOT merely knocking something down.

Sure, there are times when a person needs to be told that they're acting like an idiot.  There are times when a person's behaviour is dangerous to others and has to be stopped.  That's a step beyond mere "criticism."  When I say "criticism," I'm talking about commenting on a person's casual behaviour, skills in a specific area, work output or creative endeavours.

Note: I didn't say anything about their appearance.  If you're just going "hey, you look fat in that," you're not a critic.  You're a bully.  If you're asked for an opinion on an outfit, think long and hard about the tactful response.  And if you're not asked for your view on how someone else chooses to dress or present themselves, don't assume a person wants to hear it.  Aaaanyway...

Look, a cute dog, to make us all feel better!

For me, constructive criticism is about building, not tearing down.  It's not about listing the ways in which a person is rubbish at something, or deciding you have carte blanche to be as tactless as you like, just because someone has asked for your view.

In my day job, I work at a place with a rule when it comes to positive-negative feedback ratio.  It is always a minimum of 2:1 in favour of positivity.  It's "I love what you've done with X, and Y is fantastic, but you need to work on Z."

It's not about pandering to those who've never been given a word of negative feedback in their lives, nor is it about protecting the fragile egos of those who believe themselves to be better than everyone else.  It's about ensuring that constructive criticism does its job: it constructs.  It builds a person up and encourages them to improve.

Take me as an example.  I am extraordinarily sensitive.  I know this and I'm aware that it can be a fault at times.  I'm fully aware that sometimes, someone can give me relatively reasonable criticism and I respond by brooding on it, weeping dramatically to myself and declaring that I am rubbish and awful at everything.  I know.  I'm working on it.

Me, receiving criticism...

Because I know of my own ridiculousness, I think very hard about the way I critique anyone else.  I make sure I stick to that 2:1 positivity ratio.

Think of it like building a house.  You can't expect to build walls and, in time, a roof, if you're trying to lay foundations on a swamp.  It's going to sink into nothingness.  The base has to be solid enough to build on, before anything good can come from it.  Criticising someone too aggressively, or even needlessly, leads them to try to build their house on a swamp.  There's nothing solid for them to construct on.  But, if you offer them some positives along with the negatives, they know they have a solid foundation.  They just have to build on it, in order to create something better.

One other way of ensuring that criticism is well-received and constructive is, in my book at least, to be sure it's wanted.  If someone asks you for your opinion on something they've cooked, made or done, then adding a carefully worded criticism is all well and good.  If you're just saying to people "you did this and it's rubbish," or "I don't like the thing you made," it's going to be much less welcomed.  

Obviously, we're all entitled to our opinions and nobody should feel that they can't say anything about something they actively dislike, lest they offend someone (for example, if someone makes you dinner and it's inedible, you're under no obligation to say nothing and just risk food poisoning), but we need to consider the way we word our criticisms, especially if they're given without being asked for our opinions in the first place.  We're entitled to say "I'm not keen on this," but we should always be aware of the feelings of the person we're saying it to.  Again, it's not about pandering.  It's just about consideration.  

It's also important to remember that criticism is different to actively having to tell someone that they've done something massively wrong.  As I mentioned earlier, if someone has put others in danger, or made a catastrophic error, no amount of positives to negatives can help.  You've just got to tell them.

But if someone asks you for an opinion, think about how you go about responding.  And if they don't ask at all - and their activity isn't hurting themselves or anyone else, or leading them into a situation where a total lack of criticism could cause one heck of a rude-awakening - remember that sometimes it's easier for everyone if you just smile and nod.

In short, I believe that criticism can be a powerful tool for good.  It can help us to grow and improve as people and in the skills we choose to pursue.  But I also believe that criticism has the power to cause harm as well as good, and therefore, when we give it, we need to try to reinforce the positives of the situation.  That way, we - and others - can use criticism as a base to build on, rather than as a swamp to sink into.

Feel free to critique this blog.  Just... Do it in a positive way, okay? ;-)


  1. Em you've got a decent set of legs so why insult them with clacky wedges? Is that the sort of thing you meant? ;)

    1. Yeah - praise before the negative! ;-)



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