A healthy critique is one of the most helpful messages a person can have. A parent, boss, or even a good friend can be very destructive to someone by using an inappropriate critique approach, creating helplessness, anger, and rebellion. A healthy critique creates a hope of doing better and aids the beginning of a plan for doing so.
A healthy critique focuses on what an individual has done and can do, rather than reading a mark of character into a job poorly done. A character attack – calling someone stupid or incompetent – immediately puts the person on the defensive, making them no longer receptive to what you say next. When someone believes their failures are due to an unchangeable deficit in themselves, they lose hope and stop trying. Remember, optimism is the thought that setbacks or failures are due to circumstances that we actually can do something positively productive about, changing them for the better.
Harry Levinson, a psychoanalyst gives the following advice on finessing a critique, directly correlated to the art of praise:
- Be specific. Pick a significant incident, an event that illustrates a key problem that needs changing or a pattern of deficiency, such as the inability to do certain parts of a job well. It demoralizes people just to hear that they are doing “something” wrong without knowing what the specifics are so they can adapt. Focus on the specifics, revealing what the person did well, what was done poorly, and how it could be changed. Don’t be evasive or vague; it will muddy the real message.
- Offer a solution. The critique, like all useful feedback, should point to a way to fix the problem. Otherwise it leaves the recipient frustrated, demoralized, or demotivated. The critique may open the door to possibilities and alternatives that the person did not realize were there, or simply sensitize them to deficiencies that need attention – but should include suggestions about how to take care of these problems.
- Be present. Critiques, like praise, are most effective face to face and in private. People who are uncomfortable giving a criticism – or offering praise – are likely to ease the burden on themselves by doing it at a distance, such as in a memo. But this makes the communications too impersonal, and robs the person receiving it of an opportunity for a response or clarification
- Be sensitive. This is a call for empathy, for being attuned to the impact of what you say and how you say it on the person at the receiving end. People who have little empathy, Levinson points out, are the most prone to giving feedback in a hurtful fashion, such as the withering put-down. The net effect of such criticism is destructive: instead of opening the way for a corrective it creates an emotional backlash of resentment, bitterness, defensiveness, and distance.
Levinson also offers some emotional counsel for those at the receiving end of criticism. One is to see the criticism as valuable information about how to do better, not as a personal attack. Another is to watch for the impulse toward defensiveness instead of taking responsibility. And, if it gets too upsetting, ask to resume the meeting later, after a period to absorb the difficult message and cool down a bit. Finally, he advises people to see criticism as an opportunity to work together with the critic to solve the problem, not as an adversarial situation. All this sage advice, of course, directly echoes suggestions for married couples trying to handle their complaints without doing permanent damage to their relationship.