Before reading anything further, ask yourself first: Are you interested in giving constructive criticism? If not, then stop reading right now and go away. You’re not going to get anything out of this. If, however, you are interested in giving and receiving criticism in a constructive, respectful manner, then read on.
The first thing you need to understand is your own motivation for wanting to offer criticism. Your motivation will ultimately determine how you deliver it, and as a result, also how well it is received. Do you want to be helpful, or do you simply want to display your own superiority? If you want to be helpful, then you’ll almost automatically approach the other person in a respectful way. Your approach will be friendly, or at least non-confrontational. You’ll point out why something is wrong without making it personal. However, if your motivation is to display your own superiority to those you criticise, your approach will change. Instead of being friendly, you’ll be confrontational, and instead of criticising the behaviour, you’ll criticise the person.
That’s the difference between a personal attack and criticism. Criticism is delivered in an impersonal fashion. It’s respectful of the person, while still showing why a certain behaviour is wrong. The personal attack on the other hand will lay blame for the behaviour on the perceived inadequacy of the person being criticised.
Criticism: “If you wash the car with dishwashing liquid, you might damage the paint. Rather use car shampoo.”
Personal attack: “You must be some kind of idiot. Only someone as stupid as you could possibly think washing the car with dishwashing liquid would work.”
Being contemptuous or scornful isn’t being critical. That’s being an a**hole. Never confuse the two.
A lot of people hide their contempt behind “criticism”, and that is why it is important to know your own motivations. If the motivation is to degrade, or humiliate, then the critic cannot expect his/her criticism to be treated as serious, constructive criticism by the ones being criticised. Contemptuous “criticism” will only ever get an equally contemptuous response, thus feeding the critic’s ego because now he feels justified in offering criticism, and thus feels superior to the person he/she criticises.
If you’re really serious about constructive criticism, here’s some pointers:
1. Constructive criticism is addressed to another in a respectful way.
2. Both parties should understand where the other is coming from. There should be mutual understanding, in other words.
3. The criticism must be made honestly and should encourage improvement.
4. The criticism should be asked for and be welcomed by the receiver.
5. Constructive criticism does not blame the other person.
Point number three is where a lot of people fall flat. It comes down to being selfish. The improvement here should be to the benefit of the person being criticised, and NOT the benefit of the person offering the criticism. In other words, it should be criticism aimed at improving behaviour, and not changing the person to benefit yourself. For example: “Nice speech, man. I couldn’t quite hear what you were saying though. Could you speak up a little next time?” Criticism like that improves the person. Criticism like this doesn’t: “I hate your voice. You really shouldn’t be speaking in public.” A person should not have to change him/herself to benefit you, and offering criticism aimed at that is, once again, being an a**hole.
Point four...if someone isn’t receptive to your criticism, it won’t help offering it again and again and again. Ditto being an a**hole. If someone doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, ignore them unless it directly affects YOU. Let’s say your co-worker is a smoker (and let’s for the purpose of this example assume smoking in public places was still allowed), and you’ve explained to her that it would be of benefit to her to stop. If she doesn’t, that’s her choice, and the only space for criticism you have left is if she smokes in your immediate presence.
Let’s say you both enjoy being outside in the park, and she lights one. She’s smoking in your presence, but it’s not YOUR space, so again, you have no call to criticise her. She’s not in your home, your car, your cubicle. Yes, it’s disrespectful of her to smoke near you, but then again, you also have the option to move away from her. If you take a bottle of water and douse her fag and she decks you...well, you asked for it. You don’t have to respect her habit, but you can still respect her as a person. This means you don’t go ridiculing her for smoking. You can criticise her habit by pointing out how it negatively affects her, and you, but you don’t need to ridicule her. If your rational argument doesn’t sway her, you’ve done all you legitimately can. Humiliating her and showing contempt is not going to help persuade her, and you can then legitimately be called a douche.