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Criticism vs. Feedback--Which One Wins, Hands-Down? (Part 1)

Is criticism as ineffective as it is common?

antonioguillem,photographer/123RF free image
Source: antonioguillem,photographer/123RF free image

So What's Wrong with Criticism, Anyway?

It's something absolutely crucial to grasp. Criticizing another makes them feel attacked. Not that it's our intention--at least consciously--to attack them, or even to make them feel bad. But the immediate experience for almost everyone being criticized is to feel "invaded," as though under assault. This is why it's so rare to witness people found fault with simply to "abdicate" to the person judging them. And why it's far more likely that, self-protectively, they'll react by heatedly defending their position (or even by counter-criticizing).

Further, I'd wager that if the person criticized were hooked up to various sensors, what we'd detect happening in their bodies during the verbal barrage would closely correlate to what could be measured were that individual being physically attacked. I doubt that it's a coincidence that Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus (3rd ed.) includes among its synonyms for criticism such physically charged words as "blast," "cut," "dig," "hit," "kick," "knock," "rap on knuckles (!)," "roast," "rumble," "slam," "slap on wrist," "swipe," and "zapper." Really!

Think about it. When somebody disappoints you, lets you down, performs poorly at a task they've agreed to, or is perceived as betraying or deceiving you, it's extremely difficult not to experience a strong impulse to turn on them. And when you're truly upset with them, whatever tact and diplomacy skills you may have developed can be compellingly difficult to access. So even though your conscious motive in confronting them may not be to make them feel stupid, guilty, or ashamed, if their behavior has really disturbed you, what's likely to come out of your mouth may have precisely that castigating effect.

It's all a cruel irony. When another person's words or actions distress you, the almost irresistible--and universal--tendency is to react by judging them negatively. Yet straightforwardly, unrestrainedly criticizing them, rather than improving the situation, is far more likely to worsen it.

man screamingThe way I understand all this psychologically is that, as children, we got criticized thousands (or, more likely, tens of thousands!) of times by our parents. In those unpleasantly anxious moments, we likely experienced the withdrawal of the love, validation, and support we deeply needed from them (and this is a subject I've dealt with in several earlier posts). At the least, such parental disapproval would have felt uncomfortable and de-stabilizing; at its worst, it would have felt threatening, scary--or even raised in our imagination the terrifying specter of parental abandonment.

As a result, in growing up we would have learned to do everything we could to avoid the possibility of parental criticism--from hiding the truth about what we'd done, to coming up with all sorts of rationalizations to mute our caretakers' otherwise possibly harsh judgment of us. (And here I recall a former client, who struggled mightily to be "the perfect child," sharing with me how her parents regularly threatened to dump her off at a nearby orphanage if she continued to make mistakes and be "bad.")

So, by the time we get to be adults, it's hard for most of us not to already have become negatively sensitized to criticism--and sometimes even minor criticism. Consequently, whenever we begin to feel criticism's noxious sting, we're likely, almost as a conditioned reflex, to go on the defensive. It would, admittedly, be much more logical and prudent simply for us to listen to the criticism, objectively consider its merits, then respond accordingly. But to the degree that the very circumstance of being criticized pushes some of our most vulnerable buttons from the past (and I might add that all our buttons come from what in our history has never been emotionally resolved), we simply may not be capable of responding to such criticism as true adults.

Given such widespread susceptibility to criticism, it's almost inevitable that being evaluated negatively will lead us, in turn, to react defensively (or counter-critically--as in, "the best defense is a good offense"). So it's only reasonable that when we ourselves deem it necessary to call to another's attention their troubling behavior, we do so in a way that will minimize the chance that they'll react negatively to us. Obviously, if our goal is to be better understood, or to get our problem with them resolved, we don't want them to experience our words as inflammatory. Certainly, we don't want to provoke them, for whenever--however unwittingly--we prompt them to become defensive, we only make it that much harder for them to hear us. And this is why it's so essential that we learn how to talk to them in ways that, as much as possible, will neutralize their defenses.

In the 30+ years I've been doing therapy, I've sought to avoid critical messages likely to evoke non-productive, defensive responses; and to replace them with candid, non-judgmental, descriptive feedback. Supportively illustrating to clients, for example, how their actions may have inadvertently given offense to others typically leads to a far more positive result than any direct negative appraisal I might give them of what they've done. Additionally, in working with distressed couples, I've endeavored to model for each spouse how to overcome their strong tendencies to criticize one another through demonstrating how to offer their partner honest (and non-critical) feedback as to how his or her behavior contributes to their present-day frustrations.

Note: In Part 2 of this post, I'll define in much greater detail what feedback--that is, constructive feedback--is all about. I'll also explain why tactfully providing it to others is so much more effective than criticism in fostering relational understanding and resolving conflict.

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