Constructive Criticism: The Path to Progress

Yesterday morning we opened a consideration on feedback.  What are the actors in your world telling you?  Further, what is the nature of your impact on the world around you?  I’d like to dig  little deeper on this theme this morning by broadening our discussion to include criticism.

Offering and receiving criticism effectively is an art that few have mastered.  Most seem to be better at either giving it or receiving it, but few tend to be adept at both.  Here are a few starting points to catalyze your thinking on the topic:

1.  Criticism, to be effective, must be constructive at heart.  Constructive criticism always has as its goal the encouragement of improvement.  The emphasis is placed on what should be done, rather than on what shouldn’t be done.

The better dog and horse trainers are familiar with this principle.  You can tell who is by how they phrase their critiques.  If, on the balance, more sentences start with “don’t, never or you shouldn’t,” then the predominance of negatives will be emphasized in the mind of the animal.  Conversely, the trainer who repeatedly restates the goal in positive terms, is on the right track.  The same could be said of a parent, a boss or a team captain.  People and animals are more apt to be motivated to do the right thing – on a sustainable basis – if the right thing to do is underlined more than the wrong thing to do.

 2.  The wise critic offers criticism in a way that gives the intended recipient the best possible chance at receiving it and making the change.

How many times has someone in your life marched up to you in a huff, both barrels loaded and unleashed a fury of criticism in your general direction?  Probably not the best approach to offering criticism.  People are so used to bungled administration of criticism that they’ve developed impressive strategies for avoiding receiving it and making the appropriate change. 

One such approach is the ever popular “letting oneself off on a technicality,” the theory being that if you didn’t offer the correction or criticism correctly, then I don’t need to listen.  This is obviously not a productive tactic in the long run.  The immediate pressure might be diffused, but everyone loses in the process.   

What is required is a little sensitivity, a pinch of empathy.  Putting yourself in others’ shoes, as we looked at yesterday, can go a long way in helping you think about how best to offer criticism in the future.  The Golden Rule comes into play here, as in so many other situation.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

3.  Make sure your heart is “clear” about it before you rush in and try to make things different.

Minefield SignYou can care deeply about things without being in a frenzy about them.  Rationality is important when offering criticism.  If you’re not thinking clearly, you won’t be able to offer criticism cleanly.  You’ll stomp indiscriminately through the minefield protecting the very thing you’re seeking to address and there is nothing worse than simply becoming an actor in a role cast by another unintentionally.  They lay a red herring out in the middle of the minefield for you to attack, all the while keeping the thing that really needs to be changed hidden carefully behind their back.    Take care not to become a critic that exists solely as a toy for tormentors who know better.

4.  Timing is everything.

Carrier Landing

Pick your battles wisely.  There is an old adage worth repeating: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  Again, make your approach when you have the best possible chance of the criticism landing safely.  Approach criticism like a fighter pilot landing on an aircraft carrier.  The target is small, moving and the stakes of a missed approach are high.  Don’t rush things just because you’re feeling the pressure yourself. 

Learn to manage the pressure so that it can be your ally, not your enemy.  The ebb and flow of the pressures of life can be used to advantage in helping others to improve, but you must be proactive (and not reactive) if you are to be a master in living.


20 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism: The Path to Progress

  1. Pingback: Gerrys Blog » Blog Archive » BTHO LSU | Endless Vine: BTHO lsu!!!

  2. G. Courtland-Miles

    Wonderfully written Gregg,

    While I can’t recall our ever having met, I have heard your name and seen references to it on various blogs. So I must say that I aqm glad to finally find your ‘personal blog’. Namaste.

    Now, insofar as the topic of ‘pressure patterns’, your thoughts have opened new vistas and contexts.

    Given the diverse ‘pressure patterns’ coming to focus with such force on earth just now, your piece is most timely. Thank-You.

    No doubt, we’ve all had the experience of “rushing in where angels fear to tread”. But, when we finally discover that real down to earth angels have no fear, only love, it may well be fine to go with what Spirit is calling out for one to give voice to.

    Much like we hear Jacob did representationaly in Genesis. Remember? Ha!

    “And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.

    And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

    Gen 28:16-17

    I was touched by your paragraph that follows below.

    “Learn to manage the pressure so that it can be your ally, not your enemy. The ebb and flow of the pressures of life can be used to advantage in helping others to improve…”

    However, I am at a loss why and how I would qualify to ‘help others improve”, if the truth of their Being is in reality, ‘perfect already.’ I guess I just don’t have the confidence to actually ‘know’ exactly how anyone else’s life should look like.

    You go on to mention that “you must be proactive (and not reactive) if you are to be a master in living.”

    Indeed, there are enough ‘reactive’ human beings already. The word and context of ‘proactive’ conjures up a sense of actual ‘co-operation’. But I suspect the crux of the matter is ‘with whom’; God, Life, a Mentor, or fellow Creative being. Right?

    I have also used the word ‘pro-active’ along the Way, and felt it made a certain approach to Life somehow clearer. But years later, I am yet contemplating just how the mechanics of this work. MY handy dandy Web Dictionary says the following regarding ‘proactive’, and I must say I was a bit surprised, but not entirely.

    Proactive “(of a policy or person or action) – Controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than waiting to respond to it after it happens.

    In moving with ‘the Way of Life’ (Tao) would it not seem wiser, not to “push the river” at all? That is to say, rather than trying to control outcomes, perhaps one might put their life-force behind Life itSelf and ‘Let whatever it is work out’ by being impeccable in one’s own living.” Just a thought, but one that seems to ring truer and truer as these capacities age.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to consider this Whole matter.




  3. Colin

    You’re right, timing is everything with criticism! My worst problem with this is when I am trying to give feedback or criticism on an issue I feel deeply about, and I don’t wait till I am totally calm. I always end up hemming and hawing around the issue, and never addressing what I actually wanted to. This usually ends up confusing the correctee, or upsetting them! Thanks for the reminder to wait for the right time – you’ll know when it is.


    1. In my experience it’s not always about being calm, instead, it’s about being clear and articulate about your concern and being open to the fact that your perspective may be limited too. Humility and respect provide the proper foundation for any intervention, no matter how high the stakes.


  4. J.J.Mc

    Your comment on pressure was something I heard in a couples retreat. Most of us had been married at least 6 to 30 years. One of our first tasks was to list the five worst arguments we caused and how we caused it.
    I was very surprised at my own answers as all involved reacting to someones behavior or an issue. They were eventually resolved but my “jumping the gun” and in one case not having all the facts caused much heartache for me and my spouse.
    In the retreat we had many discussions on how to constructively give criticism to each other and take it but reading your post gave such a clear way to look at it. Thank you.
    In any relationship honesty and openness is a must but how, when and why it is delivered can be the “straw that breaks the camels back “or the glue that makes it work. Criticism never seems to have much of a gray area; it does seem either constructive or destructive.
    I follow 5 blogs and participate in 1 but I had to comment on your subject today. I read yours as early in the day as I can as it gets me moving in a positive direction and makes me feel like goodness, kindness and the possibility for a better world is not out of style or reach.

    Thank you for your insights, Gregg.


  5. Doug

    I’m speaking on how to improve communication in a small business at my next industry association meeting. The usual style is so “in your face”, almost like a family or “we never talk about it, almost like a family. This is a great start for me, thanks.


  6. Kam

    I’m fairly new to your blog but have been trying to catch up by reading at least one back post in addition to your newest post. Today I read “George Washington, Humility and Strength by Gregg Hake” It was a powerful companion to today’s post, especially at the end of it when you said “Be willing to accept correction gracefully and graciously, place great value on the perspective of others and harness the power of humility. Naught but blessing will come of it!” The essence of true humility which you conveyed through the story of George Washington seems a valuable starting point for both giving and receiving constructive criticism. It gives me a new respect and appreciation for those who have made the investment of constructive criticism in me (and even more appreciation for them if they had to withstand the initial flaring up of my ego!). So I’m sending a big “THANK YOU” out today!


  7. Lady Leo

    What a valuable subject and your expedient outline is appreciated.

    Your third point reminded me of something that former President Clinton just said in an interview with CNN Wolf Blitzer. “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do.” As an example he pointed out that the Oklahoma City bomber and his conspirators, “were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line.”

    They were the toy for the antigovenment tormentors but I wonder how they have been able to live with themselves when they saw what their rhetoric incited. Clinton went on to say…” that demonizing the government with incendiary language can have effects beyond just rallying a crowd.” He was careful to say that he was not interested in gagging anyone but we have to be responsible with what and how we say these things.

    I read an account of the McCarthy Era scandal and most who took a major stand in ruining the lives and careers of a considerable amount of people said they felt their fear of Communism and McCarthy in addition to their honest patriotism had been used by McCarthy for his ends; they too were shocked at the end result and felt guilty about what they had participated in.

    What we’re discussing has consequences in our most immediate circumstances and as with most things, the ripple extends to the entire world.

    Every day, every issue or act by anyone there is usually an opposing view or sometimes just another view. Sometimes they are correct and other times way off base.

    How we hear criticism, how we give criticism and what we do with criticism is a foundational element of maturity. Some were lucky enough to learn it as a child but your outline today gives adults the chance to re-look at some of the beginning elements to this vital subject.

    Thanks Gregg, I can see this outline valuable to me and in a few areas of study with children; a Civics, Current Events, English, Writing class or our new classes being developed to prevent bullying in school; any would be an easy place for introduction.

    I think our”Parenting Teens” class for adults would welcome this subject as well, they are always looking for the right way to tell their teen they need to make a change aka “criticizing me”.


  8. Mike F.

    Great points for practical success in this delicate area of communication and leadership. A quote that has stuck with me since I first came across it is that “criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” I appreciate your detailed thoughts on giving and receiving constructive criticism – they’ll put anyone’s good intentions on track for actualization.


  9. S. Stevens

    This is a great subject! Being able to accept and give constructive criticism is a great sign of maturity, humility and intelligent vision for yourself and the other person.


  10. Reina

    This is wonderful to consider. I have often found myself so confused when the feedback I have recieved about myself does not match up to my own concepts of who I am. At this point the decision to “throw the baby out with the bath water” occurs and out goes any opportunity for growth and positive change. “Letting myself off the hook”. It has and still does take a change of heart and a true desire to make a difference in order to give or recieve constructive criticism. As a mother and a manager, I see how the ability to be sensitive, empathetic and encouraging will be the best shot I have at not only making the changes needed in my own heart and mind but helping the ones around me to do the same. This topic is one that can be expande on over and over again. Thanks so much for your thoughtful blogs and your sincere desire to make a difference to others.


  11. Flow

    Criticism or feedback is essential for growth. As you mentioned, a loving approach to the situation opens the opportunity for “blind spots” to dissapate.

    When something needs to change, there is the tendency to focus on the thing so intently that you can’t see anything else.

    Shifting the focus to appreciation lets the heart clear and the perspective broaden. Encouragement and appreciation will be felt a core of the feedback giving the receiver the momentum to make the change.

    In the end, most of us want to leave the world (or a situation) in a better place. Feedback from others helps us grow so that we can fulfull our dreams.


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