A couple of weeks ago, someone criticized a post of mine, highlighting the problem of women’s sexuality being treated differently than men’s, for not being specific with regards to who was talking about whose sexuality. Now, there was a little problem in that this person was reacting to a repost with all the links (providing the information he was looking for) stripped out, but aside from that, he had a point. If the criticism leveled at me had been accurate (hold that thought; it will come up later), it would have been quite important for me to take note.
Being specific, like so many of the other elements of constructive criticism, serves multiple purposes. The first, and most obvious, is that someone who can’t determine quite what you want them to change isn’t likely to try guessing on their own. Specific goals can be met. Trying to meet vague goals is a recipe for getting things wrong again. If they are motivated enough to try, they’re unlikely to get it right. If they were thinking about the problem exactly the way you are, there’d be no need for the criticism.
Another advantage is that being specific aids in separating out what someone is doing right. It keeps the recipient of criticism from feeling that the change requested is too big, either to be accomplished or to be worthwhile doing for someone else’s sake. And, as previously mentioned, highlighting what someone is doing right has its own rewards.
Being specific applies both to the behavior you find problematic and to the behavior you want to see in its place. Sunny Skeptic commented that she requests that people who bring her problems at work also bring suggestions for solutions. As I noted in response, this helps the person offering criticism look at the problem from a different perspective, to fully think through other possibilities before the criticism is given. This may even result in deciding that the current course of action is correct, or correct enough, but if it doesn’t, it can still help the recipient of the criticism to understand that the current behavior isn’t the only option. Specific, detailed descriptions of the desired behavior make the new behavior easier to imagine and, thus, make it feel more attainable.
By doing the work to drill down to just the behavior to which you object and to come up with a more detailed plan than “Change that,” you make the task of change simpler. And a simpler task is more likely to get done.