Laurel popped this question into the suggestion box:
I was debating commenting on [a recent] outfit post because I didn’t think the outfit was working for me but I didn’t want to seem critical. And I wasn’t sure how to suggest the topic to you! So here goes.
My reluctance to post something critical made me think about how we as women are often reluctant to be critical of others. Oh sure, we’re critical of ourselves, and of others behind their backs in a catty way. But we’re often afraid to speak our minds lest we be seen of being critical of others. How often, in a business meeting, are we afraid to say what we feel when we don’t agree with others, or don’t want to be the only one in the room to say we don’t like something? So, how about a post on how women should hone our skills to be critical in a supportive, constructive way? I am often reluctant to post criticism of outfits on personal style blogs and I suspect others are, too. I don’t have a blog and I’m not putting pictures of myself on the Internet for all to see and comment, and have enormous respect for those who do, so I don’t want to be critical.
Laurel’s question is extremely important, and one that raises hackles for many, many people. Especially women, as she points out. Most of us have been on the receiving end of actual constructive criticism, but also criticism that’s meant to be constructive but ends up being destructive, and just plain hurtful criticism and nastiness. Telling someone that they could do better is never easy, and while it’s no fun to be on the receiving end it can be incredibly stressful to be on the dishing-it-out end, too. And as women, when we pipe up with suggestions and feedback, people tend to drag out the stereotypes: Whiner, nag, Negative Nelly (a female name for a supposedly genderless trait), serial complainer, harpy.
In my work with LOTT, I’ve had to hone my skills in confrontation and constructive criticism with other women, so I’m happy to share my opinions and insights. I would, of course, love yours, too! Since Laurel has asked about offering criticism on many levels, we’re going to start with the general today and move into the style- and blogging-focused topics tomorrow.
What makes criticism constructive?
So, for starters, here’s the Wikipedia definition:
Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one. In collaborative work, this kind of criticism is often a valuable tool in raising and maintaining performance standards.
I can get behind that. Naturally, the idea of criticism being “valid” is subjective, but I think the point is to emphasize that constructive criticism isn’t given on trivial matters or based on erroneous conclusions. This is backed up by the “well-reasoned” requirement. In picking this apart, I see several important nuggets of information.
Constructive criticism is generally about work: You can certainly give someone constructive criticism on their life choices, eating habits, social circles, and other non-work topics – including style, as we’ll dig into tomorrow – but it is most often utilized in a work setting. In my opinion, this is because work systems affect multiple people and if someone in your working environment isn’t pulling weight it will tax the system. By helping others improve, the work setting itself can improve.
Constructive criticism includes positives and negatives: Many people forget this or feel that offering positive input is just a way of softening the blow. But ideally, constructive criticism will stem from genuine interest in and care about the person in question, so offering praise alongside critique should feel natural. Also, since this form of feedback is designed to improve performance, offering supportive comments on what is already being done well can only further that goal.
Constructive criticism is friendly: So subjective, but also so important. Any input or criticism that is offered in an accusatory, suspicious, angry, judgmental, or frustrated way won’t end up being constructive. That doesn’t mean that those types of input are unimportant, as confrontations of all types have their place in human interaction. But for a critique to feel constructive to the recipient, a lot depends upon the delivery
And that’s what I feel is missing from this (albeit short) definition: A discussion of tone. The bald fact is that no one enjoys being told they need to improve or change what they’re doing. No one likes to hear that colleagues or friends have been thinking hard about how they’re behaving or performing, and determined that there needs to be a sit-down talk about it all. So using a friendly, supportive, understanding tone is essential. You can have the best intentions in the world – wanting desperately to help someone, improve their situation, show them a better way – but if you lay it all out in a cold, agitated, judgmental, or patronizing manner, your good intentions won’t do you any good at all.
Of course, striking the right tone is infuriatingly tricky because it involves human beings. Some people may hear what you think is a friendly, non-judgmental tone and get riled regardless. Some people will tune out the praise you offer and focus solely on the critique, no matter what tone you use. You may aim and miss, but that doesn’t mean that trying to offer your criticism in a non-aggressive tone is a futile endeavor. Do your best, back your tone with good intentions. In most cases, your efforts will be appreciated.
When should I offer constructive criticism?
I’m sure I’ll take some heat for this, but here’s my opinion: I think there are very limited circumstances under which it is both important and appropriate to offer constructive criticism. They include:
When someone you know and/or care about is involved: Giving criticism – constructive or otherwise – to total strangers is very seldom helpful or necessary. You don’t know them, you are unfamiliar with their background and circumstances, you don’t understand the forces influencing them, and therefore you cannot possibly know better than them. You may not care about your coworkers in the same way that you care about your grandma, but you know them and will have some basis for offering input. Naturally, if someone you do not know requests your opinion or advice, constructive criticism may be an important option. But those instances are rare, in my experience.
When your own well-being is impacted: If someone else’s actions and choices are hurting you, impeding your success, causing you acute anxiety, or otherwise impacting you in a negative way, opening a discussion that involves constructive feedback will be essential.
When you feel like your input will help: Not just when your input will have an impact, because nearly all criticism impacts people’s feelings. The art of offering truly constructive criticism involves knowing when people may be receptive to it and how to frame it in a way that it will spur positive change.
If you don’t like what someone has chosen to do, wear, say, or think but that person isn’t a part of your life, their actions have no effect on you, and your critique may or may not prove helpful? You may still opt to offer your opinion and suggestions for changes. It can feel almost irresistible to pipe up when you see someone doing something that you feel is ill-advised or beneath them. Even more so if you feel that with just a few little tweaks they could be in such better shape! But doing so won’t always bear forth your good intentions and may just cause hurt and resentment.
How do you know when it’s a good time to speak up? Before offering criticism, ask yourself:
- Why is it important to share this input?
- What will it help, and how?
- If I received this input from someone, how would I react?
How do I, as a woman, offer critiques without making myself look bad?
Laurel brings up the concept of seeming “critical” in her initial request, and I want to touch on that for a moment. Critical means so many things. When someone is in critical condition, things are bad … but when a mechanical part is critical, it is important in a positive way. When someone is thinking critically, they are working hard to draw the best conclusions possible … but when someone is speaking critically, they are often offering something alongside simple critique: Judgment.
Yep, get ready, I’m gonna talk about judgment again.
Humans judge. We are wired to judge. It’s part of how we make decisions and choices about ourselves and our lives. But in my opinion, we have fostered our natural tendency to judge and it has blossomed into a society full of scorn, snobbery, scolding, and endless, overblown judgment. We took our predisposition, put it on steroids, and BAM, tabloids were born. And Joan Rivers. And Perez Hilton. And Reddit. And more streams of judgment are added each day, it seems.
Women use judgment as a tool from the time we can speak, and in our world criticism and judgment often go hand-in-hand. Think about that girl in third grade who told you that if you’d stop being such a brown-noser/show-off/snob you’d be a lot cooler. And she informed you of this in front of everyone you both knew. Was that constructive criticism, offered to help you improve your situation? Or was it judgment, disdain, and disapproval? Unfortunately, since many of us first encounter critique cloaked in judgment, it can be hard to separate the two. And, in reality, any time you are offering your opinion on ways that someone else should change how they are behaving, you are judging them and subtly implying that you know a better way.
But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid offering constructive criticism. OH HELL NO. Not because you’re a woman, not because you risk appearing critical, not for any reason at all. If you have determined that someone you care/know is doing something that impacts you AND that your input will help the situation, you can and should speak up. Period. Will some people react badly? Yes, probably. But if your suggestions create positive change, over time those same people may become your best allies. Will some of the people who react badly be men? Almost certainly. And tough rocks because women make up more than half of the workforce and our input is important, be it positive or negative. Is it risky to offer criticism, even if it’s done in a friendly tone and under the right circumstances? Sadly, yes. But what’s the alternative? Know that there’s a better way, but continue to suffer? Allow your resentment to build until you explode into confrontation? Leave the situation and never resolve anything? It’s your choice, of course, but speaking up and offering input – uncomfortable as it may feel – could bring positive change to your life much faster.
Can you see why I’m splitting this into two parts? THAT WAS A LOT OF STUFF. We’ll dig into offering constructive feedback on style tomorrow.
But first, I want to know what you think: What does constructive criticism look like to you? Do you know anyone who gives it well, or are you a master yourself? What are some examples of helpful critiques you’ve received? What would you say to someone who, as a woman, worries about offering negative feedback?
Image courtesy Kateoo.