In the past few weeks, I have been involved with a lot of criticism, both giving and receiving. I would like to share some concerns I have with criticism in this post.
Julia Cameron talks about the challenges of criticism in her wonderful book The Artist’s Way :
Pointed criticism, if accurate, often gives the artist an inner sense of relief: “Ah, hah! so that’s what was wrong with it.” Useful criticism ultimately leaves us with one more puzzle piece for our work.
Useless criticism, on the other hand, leaves us with a feeling of being bludgeoned. As a rule, it is withering and shaming in tone; ambiguous in content; personal, inaccurate, or blanket in it condemnations. There is nothing to be gleaned from irresponsible criticism.
The trouble, from what I have observed, is that accurate criticism tends to be received very often like the “useless” criticism that Julia Cameron describes. In “The Neuroscience of Leadership” David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz present the following finding to illustrate the trouble with changing someone’s behavior:
In many studies of patients who have undergone coronary bypass surgery, only one in nine people, on average, adopts healthier day-to-day habits. The others’ lives are at significantly greater risk unless they exercise and lose weight, and they clearly see the value of changing their behavior. But they don’t follow through.
What I have noticed is that people shut down when they are criticized. Personally, I get angry and upset if I am criticized too harshly regardless of the accuracy of the criticism. My fight or fight response kicks in, and it’s almost entirely useless to continue because I have been rendered immobile. When I give criticism, the receiver exhibits the same kind of patterns; they shut down and become angry and unreachable.
After explaining the neurological pathway through which we learn and change (which does have connections to the fight or fight response due to an automatic search and reaction to “errors”), Rock and Schwartz summarize the challenges of changing behavior:
Try to change another person’s behavior, even with the best possible justification, and he or she will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort.
Despite knowing this, I often plow ahead with ill-advised and poorly thought out criticism. My observation is that for the person giving criticism, it is more important to be “right” about the content of their critique than it is for the delivery to be useful for the person being criticized. Often, the receiver is blamed for receiving criticism badly if they get upset, and the whole event gets chalked up to “tough love”.
I am frustrated by this, and I am regularly disappointed in myself when I do not communicate in a way that is fully beneficial for the person being criticized. I am also frustrated when people criticize others, including myself, for not taking into account the effectiveness and destructiveness of that criticism.
What do you think about criticism? Do you have any experience with being criticized where the advice was accurate, but your response was irrational? What did it feel like? Or perhaps you were criticizing, and you noticed that nothing was sinking in? How do you change behavior more effectively? Or should we criticize at all? What is the value of criticism?