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Reconstructing Criticism: Transparency

I am on a vacation I would like some time to enjoy and, well, this seems timely. A repost of a series.

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.

Comments

  1. Emu Sam says

    This transparency is mostly directed towards the person who is the object of the critique. The critic should try to frame the criticism in such a way that the object is least likely to throw up additional barriers to clear communication – is that right? As someone who has a history of flinching away from criticism, will the series cover how to receive critiques and effectively consider them?

    And what about criticism versus just complaining to your in-group? Suppose you haven’t decided to go the constructive criticism route, but the object overhears your less-than-temperate language. Or you’re on a personal blog venting, and the object reads and begins commenting. Quickly switch to constructive criticism? Say, “Not now, let me think it over a bit and I’ll get back to you,” when you’ve clearly been thinking about it in terms to which the object may find it reasonable to object? I would probably want to find some way to say “You have a point,” even if I have to stretch to make that point for them, and then try to play for time if I haven’t yet formed my critique in a constructive way.

  2. Emu Sam says

    Maybe criticism should be considered independent of context, but it usually isn’t. A person who is critiquing someone who hasn’t been specifically trained in recognizing and overcoming biases, and who wants their criticism to have an effect, would be failing to learn from history if they did not address complications. When I successfully turn into a computer, I will consider criticism without reference to history. Until then, I can’t even tell that I’m calling up a few dozen sub-processes engraved in my brain by past experience.

    Humans must receive training in order to properly handle criticism. Perhaps we can just ask if they’re any good at handling criticism and adjust our technique to accommodate. Bear in mind that tests reveal that people aren’t very good at judging how good they are at something.

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