The Myth of Constructive Criticism

insecurity, judgment, relationship

It can be constructive or it can be criticism, but calling something both is a cop-out

One of the great myths of modern pop communication is the notion that it’s possible to criticize someone — even bully them, provided we ask first to provide “constructive criticism”.

We actually believe that by tacking the word “constructive” on to the word “criticism”, that we magically transform the meaning.It’s a little mysterious as to why we believe that the word constructive will make the word criticism OK, rather than the other way around. Think of it the other way. We take a “good” word — constructive, and pair it with a negative sounding word — criticism. Rather than it improving things, it casts the positive word in a negative light. It doesn’t work very well.

Intent Vs. Meaning In Action

More to the point, this is a great example of how we look at INTENT for our communication as the meaning, and confuse the two. While we might intend for our comments to be constructive, rather than damaging (who actually sets out to damage someone?), the MEANING of both the asking for “permission” to provide constructive criticism, and the actual criticism that follows isn’t in OUR control. The meaning will be constructed by the other person, and it’s fairly predictable. People have learned that constructive criticism is not often pleasant and enjoyable. People mobilize their defenses and aggression when you ask, or promise to provide constructive feedback.

Learning Points On Criticism and Feedback

  • Your intent is largely irrelevant to the meaning of both the question: “Can I give you constructive criticism”. The words (and tone of voice, paraverbals, non-verbals) affect the meaning, but the final arbiter of meaning is the person listening.
  • The phrase “constructive criticism” probably should be better received than it actually is, based on the actual individual words, but people have learned that it’s not something that is often constructive, but rather it’s unpleasant, so people fortify themselves, and prepare for fight or flight.
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