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Why Constructive Criticism Isn’t Constructive

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We try and dress it up. We call it constructive so the person we’re about to criticize won’t know our real intent. But we’re not fooling anyone. Constructive criticism isn’t constructive at all. It’s criticism with a feel-good name. I’ve never talked to a person who received constructive criticism and walked away empowered and ready to make changes. When I’ve been on the receiving end of constructive criticism, I’ve left the conversation feeling defeated, discouraged and afraid to try again. And when I’ve been the one dishing out the constructive criticism, I’ve found the relationship growing a little more distant, a little less trusting.

Constructive criticism is an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly.” Two contradictory words placed together in a figure of speech. We focus on the constructive part and tell ourselves we are doing this for their own good. But the truth is…

Constructive criticism is a con disguised by a critic.

When I’m giving out constructive criticism, it’s usually because I’m feeling defensive or discouraged and I want to bring someone down into the pit with me. Instead of dealing with my issues, I deflect attention to someone else hoping the shared misery will make me feel better. It doesn’t work. Constructive criticism is a con, and it’s the tool of a critic. Whether we’re just a critic for the moment or we’ve taken up residence there, it’s time to shine the light and see constructive criticism for what it really is.

“But what if I need to give someone feedback?” Certainly, we all need honest feedback. We need someone to love us enough to speak truth into our lives. But before we give someone feedback, we must examine our hearts and ask the question, “Am I coming at this from a critical spirit or an encouraging spirit?” What would happen in our relationships if we traded constructive criticism for encouraging feedback? How can we make that shift?

Focus on strengths. Years ago, I read the book Finding Your Strengths. The book raises the idea that we are all composed of strengths and weaknesses. Our weaknesses can only be improved marginally, but our strengths can be leveraged exponentially. Constructive criticism focuses on a person’s weaknesses whereas encouraging feedback speaks to a person’s strengths. Every single person has strengths. Identify what those are and speak life into that person in her areas of strength. Nudge her forward. Give a little wind to her dreams. See in her the potential she might not be able to see in herself right now.

Offer suggestions for managing weaknesses. We all have weaknesses, and sometimes we just don’t know what to do with them. Offer helpful, practical suggestions to the person.  A couple months ago I was having lunch with a good friend who is particularly gifted at teaching. I was going over a few ideas for an upcoming talk I was working on. After I finished, she suggested I think of a visual that would quickly connect with my teenage audience. I’m a visual learner but I often get so caught up in the words I forget to think through how visuals could help my message. She offered a helpful suggestion to manage one of my weaknesses and gave me a great reminder for the future.

Choose your words carefully. When I was younger, my mom would often remind me, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” That’s certainly true when you’re giving someone encouraging feedback. Think about your tone, your inflection and your mode of communication. We love to email constructive criticism because the recipient seems more distant and we feel like we can heap it on a little heavier. If we truly realized the power of our words, we would choose them much more carefully. All it takes is one wrong comment from the right person to shut down a dream, to cause us to question our worth and to send us reeling with insecurity. On the flip-side, all it takes is one carefully chosen piece of encouragement to breathe life into a person, to resurrect a dream and to nudge someone into her full potential.

A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.    Proverbs 15:1

Constructive criticism doesn’t make us want to be better. It makes us want to crawl in a hole and hide. If you want to build someone up and  construct in that person something beautiful, encourage, encourage, encourage. Speak into her the potential you see. Cheer her on. Tell her she can do it. Highlight her strengths and come alongside her in her weaknesses. Choose your words carefully. Your words carry power. Use them to speak life.

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