Constructive Criticisim

17 October 2008

My wife and I have a long standing joke.  Early in our relationship, I made the unfortunate mistake of giving her some constructive criticism.  I simply said, “You don’t take criticism well.”  She bristled and replied “What do you mean?  I take criticism great.  Come on! Give me some criticism and I’ll show you how well I can take it.” After a pause we both burst out laughing.

Despite the irony, her defensive reaction was and is typical of how people react to criticism.  Recognizing the benefits of constructive criticism is one thing.  Reacting accordingly is something else.  Being told that you are not doing something well enough can be difficult to take.  Ego gets involved.  A sense of ownership is involved.  It becomes personal, quickly if not immediately.  Controlling your reactions is important.

But so is the message.  In any communication, there are two people. One is trying to get the message across and the other is receiving.  Each has a 50% responsibility.  The trick in giving criticism is to do it in a way and manner that it will be received and understood.  If you can do that well, how the other person receives the message is their 50% of the problem.

It is also helpful to realize that communication is very complex and contains multiple messages.  Every time you talk to another person you relate the following:

  • * The factual content of the message;
  • * Inferences conveying what you think about the listener;
  • * Inferences conveying what you want the listener to think about you; and
  • * Inferences conveying what you think about the state of your relationship with the listener.

Anytime you communicate you send these four messages with weights on various inferences.  The listener processes the information in the same way but may weight the messages differently resulting in a completely different interpretation. 

We all like to think that we are factual, but the reality is that we aren’t.  We all use these four elements all the time.  If we didn’t and only spoke in facts, sarcasm would be lost on us.  So accept that these four messages are getting passed and use them to your advantage.

In the case of constructive criticism, you need to pass the message that, for example, your colleague’s work is low quality and needs to be improved, but do it in a way that does not send bad messages in the other three channels.  Avoid the words “you” or “your” as they send the message that the criticism is directed at the colleague personally and not the work.  Refer specifically to the low quality work and how it is low quality. Send specific messages (verbal and non-verbal) to backup the other channels that the criticism is not directed at the person, that you hold them in high esteem, and that you do and will continue to respect them and their work despite this.  You also have to pass the message about what you want them to think about you in a constructive way.  If you can do all this, you’ve done your 50% of the communication. It is then up to the other person to do theirs.

On the receiving end of the criticism, realize that one of the messages getting past is that the other person feels strongly about and values the issue enough to bring it up.  The inherent message is that you are important to them and they are trying to help.  Try not to get defensive but accept the message and act on it.