A client of mine is currently writing his first novel, and last week he sent me a few chapters to read and asked for my ‘constructive criticism’. Now, this is a phrase I hate, so I responded by telling him I will give him my ‘Feedback’ not ‘Criticism’. The word ‘criticism’ is mired in negativity; it makes us focus on the things we don’t want and can be hurtful and damaging. Sticking the word ‘constructive’ in front of it doesn’t make it any better either in my opinion – how can anything that focuses on our weaknesses possibly be ‘constructive’?! However, giving someone ‘feedback’ allows us to focus on what we do want, and then we can build up someone’s strengths – which truly is constructive.
I could have read some of his novel and told him that I found the main protagonist one-dimensional and uninspiring. I could have said that two chapters into the book I still don’t know enough about him to care whether he lives or dies. Or, I could tell him that I want to learn more about the character’s back story so I can understand what makes him tick and be able to sympathise more with his situation. Essentially, I’m saying the same thing either way – but one sentence is offering nothing but negativity and the other is positive and encouraging and gives him something to work on.
Of course, this rule doesn’t just apply to reading someone’s novel; we give and receive feedback everyday, both as employers and employees, as customers in restaurants and shops, as partners, friends, and as parents. So how can we be sure that we aren’t just criticising in those situations? I’m not talking about sugar-coating – if I receive an appalling service or product then of course criticism is warranted, but more often than not situations call for a more balanced approach: feedback.
What’s the difference really?…..
- Deflating Vs Inspiring – Let’s imagine for a second it is you who is writing a novel and a friend takes a look at it for you. When she comes back to you she tells you that she doesn’t like the location you’ve set your story in and there’s too much focus on the main character’s daughter, who she finds a little whiny. End of. Nothing helpful there at all, just a bunch of criticism. You might now scrap the entire chapter, maybe write the daughter out altogether….you feel quite deflated. Maybe everyone who reads it will think the same thing. Probably not a lot of point in carrying on… And you abandon the project for 6 months. Now imagine she comes to you and says she’d love to read more about the wife because she thinks she’s an interesting character, and that she thinks the storyline would work well in a more futuristic setting. This is much more inspiring isn’t it? It might even spark some new ideas and take your story in a new direction….dial down the daughter and give the wife a bigger role…maybe she’s a cyborg! And, fired up, you finish the novel within 6 months.
- You Are The Problem Vs You Can Make It Better – I think this is something we use quite a lot when it comes to parenting. We know that criticism isn’t good for a child’s self esteem, so we always try to be encouraging and help them to put things right, rather than focusing on the mistake they have made. And this should apply to adults too; criticism points the finger of blame and tells someone that they don’t measure up, whereas feedback encourages someone to find solutions to problems and makes suggestions to make things better.
- What We Don’t Want Vs What We Do Want – Giving someone feedback, whether personally or professionally is all about helping them get to the point where there is nothing that needs to be changed or perfected – sometimes as a matter of opinion and sometimes as a matter of fact. Simply criticising doesn’t work like that. Let’s say a friend cooks you a meal, it’s delicious but you feel that it’s missing something. When he asks what you think, you could be critical and tell him that, or you could say that it’s delicious as it is, but you also think it would be really nice with some garlic in it. It’s not about lying or sparing his feelings, it’s just about telling him what you think would make it better, while still telling him that you enjoy what he has provided anyway.
- The Final Word Vs Meaningful Communication – The very nature of someone being critical often means that those who are being criticised either don’t respond at all, or they do it in a defensive or hostile way. After all, if you ask someone for their honest opinion and all you get back is a negative response it is natural to want to stick up for actions or creativity. Feedback on the other hand opens up the channels of communication by offering suggestions and additional ideas, and a conversation can be struck up and ideas shared without someone feeling they have to come out all guns blazing.
- Building Up Vs Tearing Down – I’ve already said that the criticism vs feedback debate isn’t about sugar-coating or sparing feelings, and while that is true, there is an element of not being unnecessarily harsh in what you say – it’s just not helpful is it? It’s about choosing your words carefully in order for the other person to get the most out of the things you say. Even if you are asked for feedback and you find more that you don’t like than you do, it’s still always much more encouraging to focus on the good points. We see this a lot in schools as a way to encourage children to improve, and often at parents’ evenings – it’s always going to be nicer for little Sophie to hear that she produces interesting and expressive artwork with an abstract twist, rather than that she can’t draw for toffee. Focusing more on someone’s strengths rather than their weaknesses makes it much more likely that they will then turn their attention to their weaknesses in order to improve.
In a world where we are being told that if we can be anything, be kind, it is important to recognise that our words can have a huge impact on those around us. The next time someone asks you for ‘constructive criticism’, or you find yourself in a position where your opinion isn’t 100% positive, aim to give ‘feedback’ that is encouraging, helpful, and strength-building, rather than tearing down someone’s efforts.