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Criticism: Why giving and receiving “constructive” advice almost never goes well

Posted: February 05, 2019 by Nani Waddoups

When was the last time you offered up “constructive criticism” to a colleague about her website, or told your housemate that they weren’t cleaning up the kitchen properly, or offered to help your partner get organized….again. How did that conversation go? Did you end up feeling closer to that person, more connected? Did it get the results you wanted? If not, read on.

Criticism is based on the premise that there is a right way and a wrong way to do something, and the critic is offering a valuable gift by illuminating the correct version to the apparently ignorant offender. Consider the classic example of which way the toilet paper roll should be placed in the holder: unfurling off the top, or from down below.

Is there actually a right way? The primary reason that criticism is not well received is that the recipient is getting the message that their way of doing something is not valid, or that they had not considered and/or chosen their method or version. Ursula LeGuin said this beautifully when she talked about the “intersubjectivity” of communication: our words do not land on a passive object, but on another complex person with his or her own history and worldview.

When the impulse arises to critique, consider that your recipient is a whole person who quite possibly may have a method to what seems to you like madness. Recognize that your own agenda is driving your criticism. Ask yourself the following questions:

What is my motivation or need to critique?
Does a critique really matter?
What do I need here?

Once you are clear about what it is that YOU need, then here are some guidelines to support a positive outcome.

Use “I” statements vs. “You” statements.

Focus on the situation, not the person:
“You are so scattered.” (Not helpful) vs. “I think our departure strategy could use some extra time.” (Situational)

Offer specific suggestions:
“You never help around the house.” vs. “Can you help me change the sheets today?”

Use positive language and focus on solutions: “I would like to….”
“You don’t do X up to my standards.” vs. “I’d love to see you try doing X this way.”

In order for someone to be receptive to your critique there needs to be an element of TRUST.

Show you care:
Ask permission: Would you like some input on that website?
Note your body language: Do you have an open stance, or are you cross-armed and hostile?

Be direct:
Don’t pussyfoot around the issue. Just be clear.

In order for someone to be receptive to your critique there has to be MUTUAL RESPECT.

Listen well: Hear why their version makes sense to them.

Be open: Allow that your view is not the only view. Consider that maybe there might even be something about the other person’s view that is better than your own!

In order for someone to be receptive to your critique there needs to be an INVESTMENT IN THE RELATIONSHIP.

Remember that you want to move closer to one another, that you’re on the same team.

Highlight strengths in your relationship: “We’ve been able to talk about our differences successfully in the past, so I’d like to broach a new topic!”

With these guidelines and awareness of your own needs, I know things will go better next time!

Tags: mood and feelings, relationship and family

Nani Waddoups (she/her)

Licensed Professional Counselor

Navigating toward existential meaning, and consideration of conditions at play are the roots of my counseling philosophy and style.

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