Constructive Criticism is Neither

Recently I adopted a personal philosophy that I am calling “Fierce Vision”.  I am developing it, as I so often do, on the fly. The philosophy is personal; it’s not for sale per se, but I suppose if you buy me—listen to a speech, attend a lecture, read my work, or hire me as a consultant—in a way, fierce vision is what you get.  When I get of my lazy ass, having walked the dogs, find the two Christmas presents that I bought and lost, and get down to writing today’s Rockford Greene International post ( I expect I will outline some of the broad concepts of what is slowly taking shape in my head (a scary place in the best times).

But somewhere in that nebulous stew that is Fierce Vision. Is the idea that we don’t have to listen to the excrement that  people pass as “constructive criticism”.  Last week I posted an article about suffering through criticism, and it may have sounded a bit like self pity. But I have come to realize that a fair amount of people feel entitled to  provide us with unwanted feedback when they really should just shut their gaping maws.  This is important in safety, not because we don’t have important things to say, but because often we provide feedback, less to warn others and more to make ourselves feel better. When we are criticizing—not offering advice, or training, or sharing our insights, but carping on about the stuff that bugs us.  You will know criticism when you see it; it is the piddly crap that drives us crazy about other people’s behavior.  Before we speak to another about his or her behavior, we need to ask our self why we are making the comment. If it is to make ourselves feel better, to unburden our souls as it were, we had ought to shut our pie holes.  Whether it be asking for forgiveness or setting people to right, if it’s about us, we need to remain silent.

Sometimes the criticism is subtle,  we’re not really directly telling someone that they’re broken, instead we  insinuate that you’re broken:  “You should buy a house; renting is for suckers.”  “You should sell real estate: there’s good money in it.”  Did you ever notice how some people can make you feel like crap while sounding so very helpful?  It is irritating and yet we feel guilty for being irritated since they were “only trying to help.”

Offering To Help When It Isn’t Welcome Is Butting In

The instances where people offer us help when we’ve never as much as hinted that we needed assistance is maddening.  Why does it irritate us?  They’re just trying to help out, right?  When someone tells us that “we should…”it is an act of aggression.  Once again or flight and fight goes on alert, our brains flood our bodies with chemicals, and our bodies brace themselves for a fight.  Sometimes we respond with, “you should shut the hell up and mind your own business (fight) or “yeah, you’re right” (flight.)

However well intentioned, the people who provide us with unsolicited criticism cause us stress.  The unspoken message in the “you should…” is that if you continuing doing what you are doing you are broken in some way.  The more passive their aggression the more alert our bodies become and the more stress-related problems we suffer as a result.

Some of you are thinking, “It’s my job to criticize” or “If I see some behavior that is unsafe I am morally obligated to intervene”.  That’s just you granting yourself license to butt in; it’s you giving yourself permission to “should all over” the people you are supposed to be helping.

Criticism tends to eliminate related behaviors that we value.  For example, let’s say you are the first to arrive at the office every day and the task of making the coffee falls to you.  You don’t mind, you do it because you like drinking coffee, it’s not hard to do, and you like helping out the group.  Now, one day, I come up to you and say, “you know, I’m getting sick of having to put away the coffee filters, mopping up the little puddles you leave behind, and sweeping up coffee grounds.  You’d think at your age you’d have learned to clean up after yourself.”  After my reproach of your coffee making, what are the chances that you will be making any coffee (safe for me to drink) anytime soon?  Chances are great that you will either stop making coffee (flight), tell me that I can make the coffee from now on (fight), or continue making coffee but now deliberately leaving a bigger mess (passive aggressive).  In all these cases, our goal to get me to pick up after myself are left un-achieved, and in two thirds of the cases a highly desirable behavior falls along the wayside.  Clearly, a feedback tool that does not trigger the fight/flight response is necessary.

Not all feedback is dysfunctional, in fact, good, advisory feedback is essential for lowering our stress. Instead of getting all self-righteous and criticizing workers you will likely find that advice is a far more effective feedback mechanism.  Where criticism is destructive and focuses on negative aspects, advice is the practice of providing a more balanced description of the behavior.  When providing advice, we begin by discussing positive behaviors before discussing behaviors we would like to see changed.  Our example of the coffee-making mess could have been handled using advice instead of criticism and would likely have a much more positive result.

Instead of complaining about the negative aspects of the coffee I should have started by commenting on the things in your behavior that I valued before moving on to the behaviors I would like to see changed.   “I want you to know that I love it that you make coffee everyday; I am NOT a morning person and I rely on that first cup of coffee.  I also need you’re help.  Often, the kitchen area is a mess, in a large part because of the coffee that you make.  How can I help you to clean up after yourself?”

I can already hear some of you laughing, “yeah right…they’ll just say ‘you clean it if it bothers you’”…maybe; if you lack that person’s trust probably; if you have an ulterior motive; definitely.  If you are insincere in your praise, you create, what a friend of mine indelicately dubbed, the shit-filled twinkie.  The shit-filled twinkie is a comment that at first appears to be a compliment (a delicious-looking snack cake), but inside the compliment is an insult (need I further explain the analogy?)  In the interest of decorum, let’s refer to my friend’s analogy as the SFT.  SFTs are created because the speaker is just going through the motions of commenting on positive elements of the behavior.  SFTs do more harm than good.

Far from being a SFT, this approach mends troubled relationships and helps to build trust.  As you build trust, your stress level, and the stress level of the other person diminishes.  Remember, though building trust takes time.  Initially, the person receiving the feedback is likely to resist this change in you and only through patient, consistent advice will the relationship ultimately be mended.

Another outstanding way to provide feedback is through reinforcement.  Reinforcement is used to increase desired behaviors.  Basically, reinforcement is a sincere, meaningful compliment.  It is a way of thanking people for doing things right, and letting them know they appreciate what they’ve done for us.

Irrespective of the kind of feedback we provide, we need to be specific.  It is unfair to expect people to respond favorably to vague feedback.  “You know that thing that you’re always doing, I hate that.”  What are we expected to do with this kind of feedback?  Unless I know exactly what elements of my behavior you don’t like, there is little I can do to change my behavior.  Instead, we would be better served by saying, “I dislike it when you put your feet on the dinner table and I would like you to please stop that.”

Providing specific feedback means that you must speak from your knowledge-base about things that you have experienced and seen with your own eyes.  How do you respond to a policeman at the door who tells you that some of the neighbors have complained about the stench coming from your garage? (Clearly this is an attack and you are likely to respond either by fighting or fleeing.)  Many of us would ask, “which neighbors?” or “who’s complaining?”  It is difficult for us to assess the value and seriousness of the complaint unless we can “consider the course” or at very least put the complaint into some sort of context.  If we don’t know who the feedback is coming from it’s virtually the same as getting no feedback at all.  We really should restrict our feedback to things we’ve observed, noticed, or experienced and leave hearsay out of our remarks.

So before you charge out to the workplace snooping around for unsafe behaviors, ask yourself “do I have the interpersonal skills to provide solid information? Or will my comments do more harm than good?” Ultimately, you may have to muster the courage to shut the fuck up.



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