Reconstructing Criticism: Accuracy

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

I frequently call accuracy its own virtue, and I even generally mean it. Sure, it’s possible to overreach semantic agreement or shared perspective and descend into pedantry or get all persnickety. However, short of that point, accuracy conveys inherent advantages.

This is particularly true when it comes to making criticism constructive. [Read more...]

Reconstructing Criticism: Behavior

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

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. [Read more...]

Reconstructing Criticism: Specifics

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

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. [Read more...]

Reconstructing Criticism: Praise

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

Praise might seem like an incongruous topic for a discussion about criticism, but for constructive criticism, praise is hugely useful. One of the big differences between constructive and destructive criticism is the idea that the person being criticized is worth building up instead of tearing down. There isn’t a better way to reinforce that idea than to celebrate that person’s contributions. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

Reconstructing Criticism: Work

This is the last post, at least for now, on the subject of constructive criticism. Feel free to suggest other subtopics that I haven’t covered. This post doesn’t contain any new information about making criticism effective, just some general thoughts about offering criticism.

Many of the the topics in this series are interrelated, and I’ve attempted to include those relationships as links. Beyond that, however, there is one thing that every part of creating constructive criticism has in common. It’s a lot of work. It might even be too much work. After all, you’ve got other things to do. Honestly? That’s okay.

One of the goals of this series is to give you tools for making any criticism you might offer more effective. I think I’ve done that, and I think I’ve explained how the various tools work to improve efficacy. But I also wanted to differentiate between criticism that is called constructive and criticism that actually is constructive. There’s a fair amount of the former around on the internet that has as its sole claim to being constructive “Well, I think it will be better for you if you do it my way.” By now you should know that constructive criticism requires more than that.

That isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with criticism that doesn’t work to be constructive. There’s a place for that too, in the grand scheme of internet chatter. However, we shouldn’t call it constructive when it’s not. Doing so claims an effort that hasn’t been made (sometimes because it can’t be). It can also be used as a lever to demand explanations for why criticism hasn’t worked, when the simple answer is that it wasn’t really built to work.

Calling all “friendly” criticism constructive also confuses people about what constructive criticism actually is; namely, a process that can produce excellent results when we’re willing to put in the work. I hope this series helps to make your work more productive.

Reconstructing Criticism: Goals

When formulating constructive criticism online, it’s important to pay attention to your purpose and shape your message accordingly. (Yes, it’s time to talk about “tone.”) Why? Because unlike much of the communication on the internet, which is more expressionistic in nature, constructive criticism is designed to reach and influence a specific audience. The goal is to change behavior, which precludes several other goals.

Constructive criticism is generally incompatible with venting, which is focused on the speaker, rather than the listener. It’s incompatible with shaming and flaming, which encourage defensiveness. It is also, in fact, often incompatible with a public airing of issues. Not that constructive criticism can’t be done in public, but several factors (the distraction for the recipient of figuring out why the criticism is being delivered in public, the tendency of spectators to call, “Fight! Fight!” or to jump on one “side” or another, making chasms out of tiny differences of opinion) add to the difficulty. Every additional goal adds complexity to the task, making it less likely that the primary goal of behavior change won’t be successfully met.

On the topic of goals, it’s also important to understand the goals of the person receiving criticism. The most carefully crafted, positively delivered message in the world won’t hit its mark if it’s based on an incorrect assumption of common goals. If you can explain why a change in behavior will help someone achieve their goals, you’re going to get better results than if you’re explaining why a change in their behavior will suit yours. What better way to influence someone than to help them along a path they’ve already set for themselves?

Even concentrating on common goals, criticism may miss if it’s based on goals that are too broad or unspecific. I doubt I need to point to examples of people suggesting that others who represent a common demographic, movement or general ideal should change their behavior to better support what they have in common. It’s rare that I come across an example of this working, however. The people involved may share an overarching goal, but their proximate goals are far too different for invocation of the shared goal to be effective.

If you come across someone who you feel is “hurting the movement” or something similar, it may be useful to have a discussion about immediate goals and strategy rather than to try to offer criticism. If this is the source of your disagreement, discussion at this level can keep things from getting too personal with someone who is still working on the same problem you are, just in a very different way. If you agree about strategy and proximate goals, then you have gained something on which to base your criticism to make it more productive.

And productive is still what it’s all about.

Reconstructing Criticism: Collegiality

“Because I said so” may be four of the most satisfying words in the English language. Unfortunately, they are almost exactly the wrong thing to say, or even imply, when delivering constructive criticism.

It isn’t that a person in a position of authority can’t deliver constructive criticism. They can and do frequently, since human resources management is the largest group to have embraced its utility. That doesn’t there aren’t problems that lie in combining the weight of authority with the criticism.

The first problem is that authority is all too often associated with punishment, which makes it much harder for recipients of criticism to hear it correctly. Listening or reading attentively is incompatible with wondering how much trouble is on its way and incompatible with a fight-or-flight response to fear. Setting aside this aspect of authority up front (“No, you’re not in trouble”) allows the message itself to come across more clearly.

Someone else’s authority is also not a good motivator under your average low-stakes situation. In high-stakes, strong-threat situations, yes, but those don’t generally involve constructive criticism. Under normal circumstances, people’s internal motivations are much stronger than outside authority, particularly in the long term and particularly in the immediate absence of that authority. Invoking internal motivations, showing people why change is needed rather than leaning on authority, is much more likely to effect lasting changes.

Closely related to that is the problem of defiance. Constructive criticism is that which builds the criticized party up, not tears them down. Criticism that relies on authority reinforces the recipient’s subordinate position. Who wants to be on the receiving end of that? And we don’t have to. Playgrounds have long taught us that the proper response to “Because I said so” is “Make me.” That simple retort undermines an adult in an actual position of authority almost as well as it does a bossy kid, setting up a power struggle in which the recipient of the criticism loses by making the desired change.

So you’re a person with some authority who wants to deliver constructive criticism. How do you do it? Focus on the reasons for change without being one of them. Yes, that is harder than it sounds. You can point to shared goals, but you’re better off pointing to the individual’s goals, since supporting your goals supports your authority. You can listen more than you talk, particularly about why the current state of things exists. You can enlist the recipient of the criticism in making a plan for change. You can have the discussion in their space instead of yours. You can do almost anything sincere to level the power dynamic between you and make you peers for the purposes of the criticism.

The one thing you absolutely can’t do, of course, is lean on “Because I said so” to do the work for you.