Constructive Criticism vs. Negative Criticism – Can you tell the difference?

I had two topics I wanted to talk about this week and I wondered where to start – to me it was essential to understand that the difference between constructive and just plain negative criticism before broaching the other topic so here is my attempt. I will pre-warn that this is ranty, jumps around and I kinda go all over the place but I’ve had a long (although technically short) week so here goes:

I would like everyone to take a minute and think about what they believe the difference between constructive and negative criticism is. Hopefully everyone has had the opportunity to experience both, even if they don’t think they have. The reason I added that last part is that in my experience there is a large number of people that can’t tell the difference, so when they give or receive critiques/criticism/feedback they always take it negatively. They are not able to separate the constructive part from the negative feelings. Often these are also the individuals that can also not give constructive criticism either as they deliver negative criticism instead.

To be able to take and give feedback or criticism objectively you first must be able to separate the person from the action. This can be very difficult as many believe and it can be said that we are all the sum of our actions. I would debate that although that is not untrue, we are human and humans a flawed creatures; ones that can and must learn from their errors. Being able to focus on the action vs the person shifts from it being a personal problem to a specific behavioral one. Behavior is something that most people have a semblance of control over, where as, who someone is, is innate and hard to change. Think of those that do not have complete control over their every behavior, whether it is a OCD/ADD/ADHD or something else, they would benefit from focusing on the what vs the who because it allows a separation between the individual and action. That way if someone is frustrated, confused, hurt by an action they know it’s not necessarily the intent of the person.

I know it’s hard not to take things personal and hard not to make things personal when you are having a difficult conversation, I get that, that’s why they are referred as difficult conversations. Let me start with making things personal, often when we are giving criticism it’s because we are wanting something to change, whether it’s in a relationship, at work or maybe even ourselves. In a relationship, it might be that we are setting boundaries, at work maybe it’s that you need a more reliable team member and in ourselves it might be that we see someone that has something we don’t or that we are judging them for something that differs from our own belief.

You can see that the common denominator is you need or want something so it’s personal. The thing is that for criticism to be constructive it has to be about the other person, and it has to be specific and changeable. It has to signal out specific actions that need to or could benefit from change. I’ll use my example of a reliable team member, it might be uncomfortable to approach someone that is late, the first time for sure but the second time they are late, they show a disrespect for the workplace. Now my thoughts are that maybe they don’t realize the affect of being late, maybe to them 5 min is a minor thing and the trickle down affect doesn’t hit them. Negative criticism would be to either ignore it (because this will inevitably lead to insurmountable frustration when the behavior continues) or to say something simple like I hate it when you’re late. The wording is geared towards the person and yourself vs the action so unlikely to achieve change.

When we provide criticism for something that is a personal choice and we are judging someone, this is always negative… let me say that one more time… this is always negative. There is no benefit in imparting your judgement on another person. If you have a difference of opinion on how they live their life than you can choose to either accept them or not have them as part of your life but keeping them around and criticizing them is no good for you or them.

This doesn’t mean not having a debate on opinions, anyone that knows me knows I am always up for debate, and I value people sharing theirs. What it does mean is that if you feel like a person’s opinion or action is who they are and it doesn’t line up with what you need, want or respect, you have two choices – either try to give specific constructive feedback and set relationship boundaries or choose to disassociate. At work we don’t always have the option of not having someone in our life, this is why it is crucial to learn how to give and receive specific constructive feedback.

Another thing that needs to be said is that it never feels good to do wrong, it sucks. I know whenever I make a mistake or have been called out on doing something wrong, or make someone feel bad, I feel stupid, I feel uncomfortable and sometimes a bit worthless. It’s natural to not want to make or accept the mistakes we have made. I believe for some it’s instinctive to either lash out or deflect and believe it is the person providing the criticism who has the problem not them. That comes from a self preservation instinct and ego, that to admit a flaw or wrongdoing would unravel your entire ego or ability to do anything. The first reaction, the one that is to feel shitty or that it sucks is fair, but the second one is not ok.

When one lashes out they will often say, it’s not what you said it’s how you said it. I would really encourage everyone to stop and think of that. Is it really more important how something is said or what is said. Yes, I acknowledge tone can be important, absolutely, it can set the literal tone of a conversation however the words and what is said should be so much more important. Why? Because tone is reflexive, it’s not easily controlled. Words and what is said is something that can be and is generally more thought out. Words hold more meaning because they infer thought vs. straight emotion and as mentioned previously we are human and are flawed, reactions are flawed.

Let me give you an example, I had a conversation with someone that was trying to give me their version of ‘constructive feedback’, they were super calm, their voice was soft and warm but what they said was ‘You need to work on your energy.’ I asked how do you mean?, ‘When you walk into a room everyone knows you’re there. You’re the first person to raise your hand’ ok, and ‘And sometimes when you leave a room I just feel exhausted’. I just looked at them and was confused as to how or why any of those statements would be constructive. She was saying this as part of things I needed to work on for my work performance, my energy was a weakness that she identified. So the tone was really ‘good’ however she was basically telling me she just didn’t like me, or more so my ‘energy’. See the words were not ok, the were not constructive, they were negative and very personal.

I have spent a lot of time thinking of how I took this particular feedback and tried to find a way to make it constructive as I walked out of the meeting feeling like the person really just didn’t like me. That they weren’t able to give concrete examples of actions but it was a feeling and the feeling about me was just dislike. That’s ok, not everyone needs to like everyone or in this case me but it’s a good example for this purpose.

I like to think, it’s possible I may have felt the same regardless, but that if she had said it this way – ‘You have lots of energy, the thing is, your energy can feel overpowering and sometimes intimidating. In meetings you are excited, if you could make sure that others also are able to share, like count to 10 before answering. Also I am not the same as you, I sometimes get overwhelmed when we talk so I might ask for a break or time out it’s so I can be prepared for you.’

It sill would have got the essential points and concerns out which were that I am high energy, high energy can be good and bad, it can stifle others and that it can be exhausting to be around but it would be in a way where specific behaviors and strategies on how to better the behavior are presented. The thing about this example is that it comes down to what I said about judging someone that’s not like you, so it’s hard to make it constructive. This person because of my interactions with them, I believe just doesn’t like me, there isn’t a connection and they couldn’t be specific in examples because it was just a feeling not a specific action they didn’t like.

Another example would be forever my conversations with my mother and sister, neither see it ever. There is more recent examples I’ll bring up next week as it relates more to that, but there are two instances that always come to mind – one is with my sister whom was home for Christmas. I had just woken up and saw her for the first time in about 4 months and the first thing out of her mouth, I kid you not, was ‘You’ve gained weight’ not hello, not good morning, ‘You’ve gained weight’. Fair enough I had, but what could be gained from pointing out that I had put on a few?

The second one is an example from my mom – about 6 months after having my first baby I purchased a skirt that was one size bigger than my pre-baby size but I was happy because, a) I liked the skirt and b) It meant I was getting closer to pre-baby weight. My mom said to me and again this is first thing ‘Does buying things make you feel better about yourself?’ – my only response was ‘Does making others feel bad make you feel better about yourself?’ To which she replied ‘Well I’m glad you have such good self-esteem you don’t need to.’ These are two examples of pretty obvious negative criticisms but the things is neither person delivering it saw it. Just like example at work, the person genuinely didn’t see anything wrong with what was said.

Now I feel like I might have a ton of examples of negative vs constructive because I am a blunt person so those around me feel like they can be liberal in their critiques. Like because I am open and honest then I should be able to take it too. The thing is, when I am having a conversation with someone that I would classify as critical I take great care in being constructive. I am blunt when speaking an opinion or asking for an action to stop, not I feel like I am criticizing who a person is. I also do not like ‘Sandwich’ criticism either, I don’t really believe that is constructive because too often it whitewashes the negative behavior.

An example for me, would be I worked at a customer service desk and I had a staff member that used to rest their feet up on the desk, so picture someone leaning back in a chair, feet up when you approach. My bluntness would be to say ‘So and So, get you feet of the desk’ and I freely admit I said this. I remember the staff saying that I hurt their feelings saying that, especially in front of their peers. I looked at them and said, ‘I said it in front of everyone else because they too should have told you to put your feet down. I didn’t say you are a bad staff or a bad person or dumb, what I said was put your feet down because it’s not appropriate at work, it makes you look unapproachable and disengaged.’

Had I used the ‘Sandwich’, it would sound like this, ‘Hey So and So, I know the chairs can be uncomfortable and ‘insert compliment’ like you are really good are greeting customers but can you please make sure you don’t put your feet on the desk? It looks unprofessional and really doesn’t make you look approachable. Thanks.’ The thing with the ‘Sandwich’ is that is put equal focus on what the person is doing well (even if it’s not timely or deserved) and the action you want stopped, this minimizes the constructive part of the feedback and it can be lost. The truth of it is, the staff member felt stupid when I was direct, because their actions were stupid. They really should have thought before putting their feet up, just like we should consider the affect on others when we are late or inconsiderate. There is no positive way of telling someone what they are doing is wrong but again focusing on the action vs the person the most important thing.

I want to say that I am not perfect and could use plenty of constructive feedback, my hope is to offer a perspective from a blunt person on what constructive means. Sugar coating is not constructive, I actually find it belittling and it makes me wary to trust the person giving feedback. I also again implore everyone to work on empathy, so know your audience when providing criticism. I naturally am what I am but have learned to soften my words or pull people aside if they let me know they are nervous. And last but definitely not least think about why you are criticizing someone, is it because they can grow from it, become better or is it because you want something or don’t like something.

As warned I jumped around a lot in this and am a bit jumbled. I also didn’t delve a lot into positive feedback or when Sandwich’ing’ might be ok, that will be a whole other post. I am hoping that when I review these (all posts) in 6 months to a year I can be more centered and focused on each topic but for now lots of ramblings. In the meantime, thank you for reading and please share your thoughts, comments and share away.

Leave a Reply