Constructive Criticism

This is a situation that seems to have become a mainstream work cliché. Current thinking among many coaches and communication professionals states that taking an “ask for permission” approach to difficult conversations is the way to go. The reasoning here is that asking for permission is a prompt (or trigger), whose intent is to establish a feeling of “safety” in the environment so that difficult discussions can take place. It is a way of demonstrating “considerateness” – or if you wish “respect” for the other person. (In my opinion the true meaning of the term “respect” has sadly become distorted by some social pundits and appallingly misinterpreted by some social establishments)

Naturally, most people whether at work or in a societal environment, tend to place a high value on their independence and autonomy. Any attempt to force or compel someone into a difficult conversation will meet with resistance and defensiveness, even though the content of the conversation may be in their best interest (let us not forget our interest in it all as well).

Consider these common scenarios;

Without Permission. Person A (manager / mum / teacher / “expert” / co-worker sets out to “offer some constructive criticism” to person B (direct report / child / pupil / lay person / co-worker) without permission.

Result? Invariably the message will miss the mark and have little or no effect – arousing little more than indifference, or at worst, it may even go completely wrong and provoke an intense emotional reaction (tears, anger, violence, revenge, work-to-rule, walkout etc.).

With Permission (from the experts textbook?) Person A endeavours to explain politely why they wish to provide advice and criticism and why this commentary will take care of a mutual objective explaining that they believe that person B has some options and chooses to listen and is thus more likely to take on what is being offered in a safe environment.

Result? The message may get through if both people are “reasonable”, or person B is eager to please, or it will miss the mark and have little or no effect, or it will arouse little more than indifference or the person may feel insulted, or it may even go completely wrong and provoke an intense emotional reaction. Fact is there are no guarantees in this approach here either. All you really have is the good feeling inside that you were considerate or “respectful” (which in my opinion is a truly good thing) or you went by the book.

What person A really most probably did in the second scenario was pre-suppose that the other person was passionate and responsible and interested but most of all had volunteered the desire for constructive criticism. More likely is the case that, you have experienced how the second “permission based” scenario is used (manipulated) by the self righteous petit tyrants of the world. The “with permission” approach will probably only work consistently if person B volunteers the need for “constructive feedback”.

No matter how we look at things – constructive criticism is a poor substitute for open candid dialog. Any which way we look at it, critique and criticism are by nature and definition a one way discussion. A one way discussion most likely to fail.

Constructive criticism is simply self righteousness disguised as good intent.” – GS

Coming up:When a conversation is not optional.

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