Can’t Take Criticism? Good For You!

What’s the point of saying to someone “Your problem is you can’t take criticism”?

  • If this is true, how do you expect them to take the comment on board?
  • The statement itself falls under the bracket of plain ol’ criticism, not constructive criticism.
  • Most often this comment is levelled by someone who wants carte-blanche be insulting.

It’s not a useful phrase in my book.

I personally am proud to say “I can’t take criticism” – if it’s not constructive. Yet, truly constructive criticism is rare.

As an Undergraduate Mentor , I criticise for a living. Whilst I don’t always get it perfect, I’m dedicated to giving good quality criticism. I want my students to feel positive after our feedback sessions – champing at the bit to go back to their work with a new game-plan. They should walk out feeling un-stuck where they were stuck, and keen where they may have felt disheartened. If my criticism doesn’t make the receiver feel great, I need to re-think my approach.

I’ve been on the receiving end of incredibly helpful feedback both personally and professionally – its pure gold. But careless criticism, or tactless, incorrect remarks, claiming to be constructive, I have no time for. They infuriate me, and why shouldn’t they? After all, these remarks are essentially negativite whilst professing to be on your side.

There’s no place in my personal and professional relationships for criticism which is not fit for purpose. I’d go so far as to say that ideal feedback contains no criticism and no negative statements. In my book, it should be called “constructive commenting” – with no “criticism” in sight.

“Constructive criticism” is simply a contradiction in terms.

Which of these approaches would you rather be on the receiving end of?

“I’m on your side so I’m gonna be blunt and tell you what’s shit so you can improve it. You’ll be grateful because if no-one ever tells you, you’ll just keep being shit!”

or

“I’m on your side, and this means I’m excited about everything you’re doing so well, and even more excited about the potential you have to improve even more. Let’s identify the areas with the most potential for growth and create a plan together!”

There are big differences between the two. Even though the tough-love approach could be helpful, it’s inherently negative. It’s based on the idea that people get better when they focus on how badly things are going. In reality, the opposite is true. I believe people improve when they are charged with self-belief and totally focused on a positive goal. In that state of mind they will tear through anything in their path to get to it.

Ironically, to demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to criticise an example of what I think of as “bad” criticism, from an article about people who “can’t take criticism”. This is one example of what the author calls “constructive”:

 Boring is death. Never be boring. Be provocative, be entertaining, be enlightening, be educational. Never boring. Unfortunately, right now, you’re boring.”

There are SO many discouraging factors I don’t know where to start. The overall message – “your writing has some good ideas but would be more engaging if…” – is in there somewhere, but is couched in such a way that it comes across as an insult. This is partly because it confuses the subject’s work, with the subject, by saying “you’re boring” instead of “your writing is boring”.

The advice too is impossible to follow, because if someone’s writes “boring” stuff, a logical conclusion that they don’t know how to “be entertaining”. Simply telling them to do it won’t help. The result – the message sent is “you’re rubbish and should get better”. Not very useful, but unfortunately I can’t provide any suggestions for more useful feedback in this context, because I didn’t see the original work.

I can however, suggest a different approach. I’m not talking about pussy-footing around weak spots, or being afraid to mention them – I’m talking about an overall positive attitude. The above excerpt is like advising someone on how to sculpt an elephant by saying Chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” True, but unhelpful. Really good feedback however, says “That bit over there doesn’t look like an elephant. I have some suggestions on how you could chip it away.”

This approach requires a lot of attention. For a start, you’ll need to know which elephant the artist is aiming for. No use giving feedback on how to sculpt an Indian elephant if it was meant to be an African one all along. Also, avoid confusing the artist’s desired elephant with your desired elephant (by the way, the elephant is a representation of someone’s desired goals, be they personal/skill development, or completing a project).

Next, be specific and accurate. Avoid personal likes and dislikes such as “I don’t like the tusks”. If the tusks need more detail, say “tusks” not “head”. If you’re not sure what would improve said tusks, don’t try and say more than you know. Try “I think the tusks needs something. If you agree, can we explore what that might be?”

Here are some helpful phrases to deal with areas that need improvement:

“I know you really want this result and I have an idea that might help you achieve it…”

“This aspect of the work has improved so much you should be really proud! It throws this other aspect into sharp focus, which could be brought up to the same standard to make the over all product water-tight.”

“I’d like to explore whether it would take you closer to your goal if this aspect was changed or omitted.”

“Since you’ve told me you’re aiming for X, my reflection is that the biggest obstacle to achieving X is Y. How does that sit with you?”

But more than phrasing, the key is attitude. Even clumsy comments can go down well with the right intentions, whilst (as seen above), cutting accuracy can be ineffective depending on how its offered.

Check with yourself – why are you giving feedback? The most genuine reason to do so is a real commitment to helping someone achieve their goals. As the critic, you are the space holder.

Common misaligned reasons people criticise include wanting to look like an expert, wanting to take someone down a peg, or wanting someone to behave more like them. There’s nothing quite like the person who tells you you’ve offended them by saying “Can I give you some constructive criticism? You offend people.” No doubt that they’ll soon be saying “some people can’t take criticism”, to which you can respond “No, I can’t take criticism and I won’t.”

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