Several days ago I gave a talk to students at Stanford University on the subject of nonviolent communication and the importance of empathy. At that meeting one of the students asked, “What about ‘constructive criticism, isn’t that important?”
Here was my answer:
“Constructive to whom? We might believe that we are being constructive. We might have every wish to help this other person. We may want to provide excellent advice and direction about where they might now turn to give an even more exemplary performance. And this may satisfy our criteria for “constructive criticism.” We can then say, “I gave him constructive criticism” and feel quite satisfied that I have made a wonderful contribution to another person. Maybe it’s time for celebration?
Not so fast! Would it be worthwhile to check in with that other person to see how this “constructive criticism” was received? Do we find it strange that this kind of checking in is rarely done? Why do you suppose that is? Do we think we know the answer? “That other person must be grateful since I gave him such wonderful advice!” Also, how many of us wonder at this phenomenon: We enjoy giving advice so much! Have you ever noticed how much you love to give advice? Have you ever had this thought: “I’m enjoying giving advice more than this advice is actually worth.” Is it possible that we enjoy the experience of giving advice independent of any value in that advice? Is it possible that the experience of giving advice is mostly an ego gratification for the speaker? Is it possible that when we give advice we are telling ourselves- “Look how wonderful I am. I’m giving advice! I must know what I’m talking about since I’m the one talking!”
A wise man once said, “Everyone loves to give advice. Very few enjoy taking it.”
In many cases people are not open to receiving “constructive criticism.” When it’s delivered under this condition, it can often be experienced as “destructive criticism.” Because of this, it’s often useful to make sure the conditions are good for the proper reception of criticism. What are those conditions?
1. Connection- we ensure that the feeling of connection and care is secure.
2. Respect- we make sure that the speaker and the listener are held with high regard.
3. Social and financial safety- The social or financial status of the person is not at stake during the conversation.
4. Willing permission- The listener has stated their willingness to receive constructive criticism and this is genuine, unforced willingness.
5. Openness- the listener is genuinely open and prepared to hear what you have to offer.
This does not mean that you should never offer criticism except under the above conditions. It just means that it is less likely that your comments will be received as “constructive”. What does “constructive” mean? It means that the listener is likely to seriously consider what you have said, take it to their heart, and even willingly make a change in what they say, do, or think.