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May 13 2010

Reconstructing Criticism: Behavior

This post will be a bit of a departure. To date, I’ve tried to talk about constructive criticism in positive terms, to focus on what to do rather than what to avoid. That gets more difficult the more misunderstood a concept is, and keeping the focus of criticism on behavior is one of the more misunderstood pieces of constructive criticism, at least in practice. I can say that behavior is specific, overt actions taken directly by an individual (including omissions of behavior). This is still likely to result in misunderstandings, so let me tell you what behavior is not.

Behavior is not motivations or intentions. It is not:

  • You wanted X.
  • You tried to do X.
  • You meant X.

Behavior is not effects. It is not:

  • You made me feel X.
  • You made me think X.
  • You made someone else do X.

Behavior is not associations. It is not:

  • Your friend did X.
  • Someone with whom you have something in common did X.

What do all of the above have in common? These are things that the person receiving criticism can’t control. Behavior, at least in the realm of constructive criticism, is something that is under the control of the person being criticized. Note that this is a stricter definition of behavior than is used in the social sciences, and that the actual degree of control a person has over behavior is a matter of some scientific scrutiny (although the belief in our own control over our actions appears to be very useful, illusion or no). However, remember that this series is focused quite narrowly on being effective. Criticism can’t result in change unless the person hearing it has the power, the control, to make a change.

Does this mean that goals, effects and associations aren’t subject to discussion? Of course not. It simply means that the focus needs to stay on the things that can be changed, the behavior.