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The Art of Constructive Criticism

Are you a constructive critic or just critical?

Most people are very thin-skinned and easily upset when it comes to receiving criticism.

Even when criticism is constructively intended, the receiver may be sensitive and respond with feelings of anger, sadness, or guilt, especially when the criticism is delivered in a way that tends to arouse defensiveness such as sending it in the form of a "You-message." (See "I-Statements" below.)

This is because when people receive messages that start with "You," such as "You didn't do this," "You never do that," "You always do the following," it is natural for them to feel attacked and take a defensive or even a retaliative position.

Fortunately, there are several excellent methods for giving constructive criticism that are unlikely to trigger bad feelings.

Since requests go a much longer way toward achieving cooperation than snide remarks, put-downs and negative declarations, the first method of constructive criticism is to request a specific change in the future instead of pointing out something negative in the present.

Indeed, most would agree that hearing "In the future, please remember to put your dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink" is far preferable to "You have to stop leaving your dirty dishes in the sink!"

So, instead of saying "You left the hall light on again," try saying, "In the future, please remember to turn off the hall light." Instead of, "I wish you'd stop wasting all of our money!" say, "In future, let's discuss our spending plans."

Another technique of constructive criticism is called the "sandwich method" in which one sandwiches the meat of a criticism between two positive comments.

Hence, instead of saying "You did a lousy job writing this report," using the sandwich method one could say "You did a great job on the introduction, but the middle section and conclusion seem a little weak. With a bit more work, I'm sure you can tighten it up into a really good report."

It's also important to keep in mind that how you say things matters as much as what you say. If you want to deliver constructive criticism skillfully it's helpful to practice using "I-statements" rather than "You-statements."

The difference between an I-statement and a You-statement is simple. Consider the following rant an aggrieved mother might vent on her teenage child:

"You never come home on time! You think that everything should run on your schedule, but the rest of the family can't always just wait around for you! Why can't you be more considerate?" Thus: "You never... You think... Why can't you..." All You-statements.

In contrast, I-statements go like this: "I get really upset when I've fixed a family dinner and you're not here on time. In the future, please try harder to get home on time, or call if you're running late."

Here's another typical example. A spouse says: "I can't believe how selfish you are! All you do is sit around expecting to be waited on and don't even help with the dishes." That's a pretty critical You-message, right? Compare it to an I-message: "I would really appreciate it if you helped me around the house more especially with the dishes."

Or, "You could call your mother more than once a month, you know" vs. "I think your mother would love to hear from you more often."

So, unless you are praising someone, You-statements are usually combative. Any complaint that starts with a "you" is often hostile and will usually be felt as destructive criticism.

To summarize:

Try the "sandwich method" as much as possible.

Practice requesting positive change in the future instead of complaining about current behavior.

Deliver your messages in the form of I-statements rather than You-statements.

Finally, keep in mind that giving criticism is a skill that, like all skills, can be mastered through learning and practice.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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