May 09, 2010

Reconstructing Criticism: Transparency

One of the hallmarks of constructive criticism is that it is presented in such a way that the recipient understands the criticism is about their behavior, that it isn't personal. However, any group of people brought together by mutual concerns are going to develop personal history. Some things will be personal.

If you're delivering criticism to someone with whom you have a history, you can't pretend that history doesn't exist or that it doesn't affect your ongoing interactions. The same is true if you're delivering criticism to someone who disagrees with your friends. And again when you're criticizing someone who disagrees with you on an issue that elicits an emotional reaction in you.

None of us want to think that criticism is actually about our behavior. It's much, much easier to dismiss it as the product of someone else's biased thinking. It's much easier to say, "This isn't about what I do, because no matter what I do, this person is not going to like it or me."

Does this mean you can't criticize someone constructively under these conditions? No, but it does mean you have a bigger task ahead of you. You need to acknowledge your history and your biases before it occurs to someone else to ask why you haven't, and you have to honestly and non-trivially analyze how that history and bias affects your position. With all that out of the way, your point at least stands a chance of being heard for what it is.

This isn't easy, and it isn't comfortable, but transparency is one of the requirements of effective, and thus constructive, criticism.


NewEnglandBob said...

There is a "not" missing in your third to last paragraph.

What you said is correct, but for many (most?) people is is nearly impossible for them to put aside their emotions and acknowledge history and biases.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Bob. Fixed it.

I don't pretend that anything about constructive criticism is easy. Nor do I think you necessarily need all the elements of constructive criticism to get anywhere, but the more you can implement, the better your chances of being heard.

Anonymous said...

While I sort of agree ... I also sort of don't. The problem is that criticism of my behaviour is by definition personal, because I am what I do. I can be fully aware that the criticism I am given is not meant to hurt me or imply I'm worthless, but because my behaviour is intimately connected with my personality, I'll still be hurt (depending a little on the criticism). There is simply no getting away from this, and I think people who GIVE criticism need to be sensitive to the fact that as much as they don't MEAN to be "mean", it'll still come across that way.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Yes, it's definitely personal to you. However, that doesn't mean it's necessarily personal to the person giving the criticism, and if it is personal, that's sufficient to explain why the criticism is being given, meaning you don't have to search for another answer (e.g., it's being offered to help you).

And none of this series should be taken as a guarantee. You can offer perfect constructive criticism, and the recipient can still choose to ignore it. This is aimed at getting rid of as many of the distractions as possible and maximizing the chances of getting through--while not messing up important relationships.

Becca said...

Maybe my brain is lazy, but I get the feeling you need 'xamples here to illustrate these principles.

Heather M. Rosa said...

"...I am what I do..."

I find that incomplete. I also am what I think, what I dream, whom and why I love, etc. What I do is just a part of that. It may be I do something that isn't just what or how I wanted to do something, and good constructive criticism can help me see not only what I do but examine why and what I meant. That in turn can lead me to doing something different and/or better to accomplish what I wanted.

Example? I said something to a family member that got taken the wrong way, and it was not until I heard back how it was taken that I was able to say it in a better way that said what I really meant. That helped take it out of the personal and put it back in the behavioral where it really belonged.

I communicated carelessly. That is not who I am, for I -try at least- am not a careless communicator. That is what I did, that time. The consequences were personal, for both of us. The criticism, when it came (a bit late, but timing's covered in next posting) helped change the behavior by changing my sensitivity to how I communicate, thus giving me more of a choice for my next behavior.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Becca, maybe, but these are general principles for constructive criticism. How they're applied will vary (I hope) depending on the specifics of the situation. I'd rather not get more specific than I need to, lest people think there's only "one right way" to apply them.

Feel free to ask questions, though. Not that you don't. :)