Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 49;   December 9, 2009: A Critique of Criticism: I

A Critique of Criticism: I


Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
Polonius's Charge to Laertes, color wood engraving by Bernard Brussel-Smith (1914-1989)

Polonius's Charge to Laertes, color wood engraving by Bernard Brussel-Smith (1914-1989). In Act I, Scene 3, of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius, a courtier, dispenses some wisdom to his son. It is here that we find the now-famous lines, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," "But not express'd in fancy, rich, not gaudy,/For the apparel oft proclaims the man," and "To thine own self be true." Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Some call it "feedback." Some call it "criticism." Some try to distinguish the two, with varying degrees of success, but that's a topic for another time. By whatever name, we usually deliver the message with good intentions. When the intentions are good, but the results aren't, receivers are hurt, and givers surprised. To guard against this possibility, people have developed a number of introductory safety phrases.

One safety phrase is, "I'd like to give you some constructive criticism." It's almost an incantation — the magic words that are supposed to protect us from hurt or hurting others. But safety phrases, like incantations, don't always work as intended.

To achieve a positive outcome, givers need more than safety phrases — empathy is essential. To help givers of feedback or criticism understand the receiver's experience, I offer this framework for thinking about the entire process. By examining criticism from four perspectives — giver, receiver, content, and setting — we can develop guidelines for making criticism more effective. Here is Part I of those guidelines, emphasizing the giver and receiver.

Investigate thoroughly and without bias
It's just possible that the giver lacks access to important information that renders the criticism irrelevant, wrong, or worse. Delivering criticism that's clearly mistaken damages the giver's credibility. More important, it can damage the relationship between giver and receiver, perhaps permanently.
The basis of any criticism must be thorough investigation. Sometimes, thoroughness requires the receiver's active participation. And sometimes, because people tend to adjust their responses based on the identity of the investigator, an unbiased investigation is possible only if performed by someone other than the giver.
"To thine own self be true"
If the giver's behavior or Criticizing the actions of someone
else, while you continue to do
similar things regularly yourself,
will likely contribute to
hostility in the relationship
beliefs are similar to those the giver is criticizing, the receiver might feel anger, outrage, or pain, even if the giver's message is valid. Hostile feelings follow, in part, because criticism carries an implicit message that the giver isn't subject to similar criticism.
Criticizing the actions of someone else, while you continue to do similar things regularly yourself, will likely contribute to hostility in the relationship.
Seek permission freely given
If the receiver hasn't freely given the giver explicit or implicit permission to deliver criticism, then feelings of being attacked are likely. Even when permission has been given, the feeling of being attacked can come about if the permission wasn't given freely. For instance, accepting periodic performance reviews is actually a requirement of many jobs. The feeling of powerlessness in performance reviews comes about, in part, because performance reviews are mandatory.
Delivering criticism without first gaining permission is unlikely to have a positive effect. Permission given under threat of employment termination, which is the context of most performance reviews, is not permission freely given. Permission sought and obtained in a public setting, where declining to give permission can be embarrassing or costly, probably is not permission freely given.

In Part II, we'll examine guidelines that arise from considering content and setting.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: A Critique of Criticism: II  Next Issue

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