Reality Check: “Constructive” Criticism; Is it a Con?

People often try to be helpful, though it might not seem that way when you’re on the receiving end of their helpfulness. For example, think about how you would feel if you were told, “You seem awfully cranky. You should get more sleep.” Or how about this helpful information: “You look tired. You really should be taking vitamins.”

Everybody has an opinion, eh? The folks pointing out the error of your ways may have the best of intentions, but it feels a lot like criticism when it’s you that’s being “helped.”

Critical comments may be most destructive when they are aimed at those closest and dearest to us. In some relationships, it’s as if intimacy is taken as a license to criticize.

For example, Billy has a new job, and now he is often tired and forgetful.  His girlfriend, Marcia, thinks it’s essential that she point this out. “You forgot to pick up the milk; you should make a list. You fell asleep in front of the TV; you should stay awake with me.”

Billy perceives Marcia’s comments as critical, and they hurt. Even when critical comments seem trivial, they don’t help their relationship.

Marcia acknowledges that she’s sometimes on Billy’s case. However, she defends her comments because she perceives that she is offering “constructive” criticism.

For example, Marcia tells Billy, “You should go to yoga with me; you wouldn’t be so tired.”  Marcia’s intentions are good; she’s just trying to help.

We often think of “constructive” criticism as criticism we give based on our good intentions. Well, Dr. Glasser, in “Take Charge of your Life,” points out the mistake of letting good intentions emerge as criticism:

“The basic flaw of criticism…is not that it isn’t well-intended but that its intentions are almost never realized. Instead of helping people function together more effectively, it almost always drives a wedge between them.”

Fact is: Marcia’s continuous criticism is not helping Billy or the relationship.  What does make a relationship work well? Caring for each other, respecting each other, and sharing goals can have positive effects.

None of us is flawless. Partners can always find an opportunity to criticize each other should they choose to look closely enough.

What could Marcia do that might work better? Before she “constructively” criticizes, she could ask herself, “Is this comment going to make things better or worse?”

Marcia could try asking, “Would you like to go to yoga with me? It helps me feel refreshed.” That question has a different tone than the demanding “You should…” approach Marcia had been using.

Billy has options too. He already knows that Marcia wants more time with him. He could pre-empt her criticism with, “How would you like to spend this evening?”

Asking for information or providing information is different, and more effective, than criticizing. Each of us makes a choice when we criticize. If you think your criticism is OK because it’s “constructive,” then be aware that while your intentions may be great, you still run the risk of having a negative effect on the relationship.

Do you think that criticism is ever truly constructive? Or is that just a con?  Let me know

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