Hari's Corner

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The problem with "constructive" criticism

Filed under: People and society by Hari
Posted on Wed, May 19, 2010 at 21:54 IST (last updated: Wed, May 19, 2010 @ 21:54 IST)

HandThis topic occurred to me after idly observing a few talent show programmes on television. The judges on these kinds of programmes vary a lot, but I find that they fall into two major categories: the ones who are "brutally honest" and pride themselves on constructive and honest criticism and the ones who bestow empty unwarranted praise regardless of merit because it's the easier and pleasanter option. Both kinds have problems. The issue with undeserved praise and flattery is rather more straightforward. But when it comes down to "constructive criticism", I think it generally fails on rather more subtle grounds.

As a concept, I think the whole idea of constructive criticism has a few flaws. I personally have no problem with the idea behind criticism - even biased criticism - so long as it is undisguised and the intent of the critic is open and transparent. It is constructive criticism that often causes problems - in either tone, content, intent or a combination of the three.

As a whole, I think it's a rather touchy area for people who are at the receiving end. Constructive criticism, in theory, should be taken for what it is: an analytical study of a subject's merits and demerits and suggestions for improvement. In practice, I find constructive criticism often more negative than positive. There is always a tendency to over-analyze and nitpick. This shouldn't technically be a problem when the overall tone is positive. However, I think the result is often that the person receiving the criticism can end up getting hurt or upset. The problem here is that the recipient is expected to take it entirely in the positive sense and as a stepping stone to improvement. Purely logical beings would no doubt find it the obvious reaction. However, as human beings, we are emotional. We don't like flaws pointed out. At least not all the time. Sometimes we become defensive unconsciously. It can also have an overall demoralizing effect on the psyche. When somebody points out ten negatives and two positives, the negatives overwhelmingly stand out even if the positives are emphasized.

I attribute it to the fact that while we all want praise or appreciation but somehow develop a distrust for it. Anything positive is taken as "being nice" while negativity is evaluated as "brutal honesty." Nobody starts a positive commentary with the phrase "I'll be brutally honest with you" or "To be frank". The human mind naturally associates this with negativity and passes judgement. As a result, even the positive aspects of constructive criticism tend to get played down or written off as a lazy attempt at balance. More generally, critics tend to analyze failure far more deeply than success. If you read book or movie reviews, negative reviews often tend to be longer. Ever wondered why?

This kind of analysis can be even more unhelpful than unwarranted praise because it can destroy confidence in sensitive individuals; all the more for being perceived to be "constructive" and "honest".

So is it that positive commentary can never be taken as honesty? I don't think so. There are ways to do it effectively. So long as there are cogent and good reasons for positive criticism, I think it can be enormously satisfying as well. We all require praise or appreciation, but sometimes a little more than that. Constructive criticism has to be equally objective and analytical about positive points as well. Otherwise it tends to lean more on the negative side. Criticism, whether analytical or biased has to have one main quantity: balance. And that's all there is to it.

7 comment(s)

  1. It's all down to the critic, I'm afraid. If you say "X was rubbish" that goes nowhere. If you say that "X was rubbish because it didn't tremble the fipertty" then that is better but still unhelpful. It should be "X didn't quite work because you didn't tremble the fipertty, but if you can do that and build it into the widget valve so that the overall soprano drive wobbles you will have a masterpiece".

    This is something that people forget - the "constructive" part of the criticism. You should criticise in such a way that it can be built off. Hence, constructive criticism.

    Comment by ray (visitor) on Thu, May 20, 2010 @ 13:38 IST #
  2. Absolutely. The problem is, on Television you only have time for so many words and so people take the easy way out. But that's no excuse for not being as helpful as possible within the framework of criticism.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Thu, May 20, 2010 @ 19:52 IST #
  3. (Note: Hi, Hari. Found your blog through your Admin Zone account. My user name there is Zulehan.)

    Honesty is a must, but what matters most is that the reviewer have in mind that, whatever is said must be something that will allow for development. If you just say something sucks, you're not "reviewing" no matter how honest you are, but if you say it sucks because of such and such reasons, no matter how wrong you are, it gives the recipient of the review perspective.

    Of course, even with "brutal" honesty, there is room for professionalism and diplomacy.

    Comment by Zulehan (visitor) on Sat, Jun 12, 2010 @ 01:26 IST #
  4. Heh, sorry, Ray, I should have read your comment first, as I would have realized you already covered what I said.



    Comment by Zulehan (visitor) on Sat, Jun 12, 2010 @ 01:27 IST #
  5. Thanks Zulehan. My point was that a balance needs to be found between nitpicking and reasonable feedback. When negative criticism starts to blow out of proportion, that's when I feel it's bad, regardless of the intent of the critic.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Sat, Jun 12, 2010 @ 09:23 IST #
  6. If you sandwich the negative with some positive, it not only makes it easier to read/hear, but also shows that you've actually been paying attention to the other person. They will be more inclined to pay attention to your critique.

    Comment by mrcorey (visitor) on Sat, Jun 12, 2010 @ 20:46 IST #
  7. If you sandwich the negative with some positive, it not only makes it easier to read/hear, but also shows that you've actually been paying attention to the other person. They will be more inclined to pay attention to your critique.

    Good point, MrCorey.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Sun, Jun 13, 2010 @ 09:01 IST #

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