Constructive Criticism Generally Isn’t Constructive

Criticize: “To judge with severity, to find fault with, censure; usually implying a detailed expression of disapproval.” –The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language

Linda: Fault, severity, censure, disapproval — is it any wonder that we often cringe when someone asks to give us some “constructive criticism”? It’s actually a trick question since they probably are aware that you probably are not really interested in hearing their criticism, since if you were, you would have asked them for it, and it’s hard to tell someone that it’s not OK since that would make you seem like you don’t value their wisdom. See what I mean? Trick question.

If you do want to hear some constructive criticism, there’s no problem. Just answer “yes.” But don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling defensive after you’ve heard their comments. You may find their criticism to be helpful; you can’t really know in advance. The odds are that this person may have another agenda in offering you their pearls of wisdom.

For example, since it feels good to help someone who is struggling with a personal problem, they may want you to accept their offer to feel important, helpful, needed, or worthwhile. They may want to demonstrate their intelligence in order to make a favorable impression. They may see their own value as being dependent upon their ability to help other people. They may enjoy making other people happier. They may want to help because they care about you. Nothing wrong with that is there? Not really. But if they do have a hidden agenda, they have a need for you to respond to their advice by agreeing that they are correct by doing what they are suggesting.

Most criticism, constructive or otherwise, contains a hope that you will approve of their offer and act accordingly. If you get defensive, trying to explain why you’re not ready to do that right now, they may express disappointment.

Upsets happen from time to time in all relationships, even the best ones. And there’s no need to go out of your way to avoid the possibility of a disagreement. But if there’s a likelihood of that happening, think twice before accepting another’s offer to give you some free advice.

It’s natural to feel defensive if we feel judged by another’s responses to what we’ve said, done, written, thought, or felt. The challenge is to honor our own truth without putting the other person down for pointing out what they see as our deficiencies. The challenge is to accept (not necessarily agree) with their response and to resist the temptation to explain. Doing so will cause them to feel judged and then get defensive at which point you’re both off and running.

It’s helpful to remember that there is almost always a part of their motivation that is coming from a caring intention. The object is to hear their response, criticism and all, without feeling obligated to either accept or reject it.

Simply say something like “Thanks,” or “That gives me something to think about,” or “I appreciate what you said,” or “Say a little more about that,” or anything else that acknowledges that you’ve heard their words. If they press you and want to know whether you agree, just be honest and say that you need to think about it before you decide whether or not you plan to act on their advice. See if you can find at least one thing about what they say that you learned and tell them.

Everything that we’ve written here about how to deal with those who want to give you constructive criticism applies to those of you who have ever found yourself on the other side of the equation. We all have had a strong urge to tell someone else what they need to do, say, feel, think, or be. The next time you’re the one asking if you can offer some constructive feedback (or worse still, offering it without bothering to find out whether they are really open to it), give yourself a moment to check yourself out. You might want to think again before you speak. It just might save you a lot of trouble. But of course, that’s just my opinion.

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Linda & Charlie Bloom

Linda & Charlie Bloom

Linda Bloom LCSW and Charlie Bloom MSW, married since 1972, are experts in the field of relationships and have published four successful books.