Author: Dr. Buddy Thornton
Criticism is such an ugly word. It creates visions of influential power dynamics where a party can change the actions of another by castigating some result or attribute. In the business world, criticism is a tool of autocratic environments that should become an archaic concept relegated to the past where it belongs. Understanding criticism in its base form is to understand it is a visible reminder of rigid, controlling societies. So, as a cultural artifact, criticism must evolve into an acceptable construct to be dealt with in any sense of reality.
Why is it an ugly, unacceptable concept? Different authors have tried to extend positive attributes to the term. “Constructive” criticism is the most often portrayal. Without additional context, all criticism is still harmful and demeaning to the recipient. Following is an evolved representation of what “criticism” should be.
Consider feedback cycles. Feedback may be an inherent part of any communication process and may be requested or offered without solicitation. In either case, the key component is the cyclical nature of the feedback. In genuine growth environments, the recipient may request clarification of points included in the feedback and expect to gain guidance to finding the correct path forward. In the strongest sense, the feedback cycle only suggests potential action, leaving the recipient to process and act, or not act, upon the suggestions. In a positive dyadic relationship environment, feedback cycles are the norm, and criticism is absent. But what happens when criticism is the norm?
Criticism in every form has two universal attributes. One, criticism creates barriers. Even in contexts where the recipient chooses to set aside emerging feelings of belittlement or victimization, the neurological response is the creation of intrinsic long-term memory of the event. The memory will include the causative agent and the painful emotions.
Memory, according to contemporary research, utilizes a dual track for all sensory inputs, then chooses how to frame the data. Some things are reduced to short-term memory or even ignored, but genetically-driven defense mechanisms store sensory inputs that are deeply visceral or create pain in the long-term memory area of the cortex as a prime for triggering a future action potential. Every case of criticism outside the context of feedback loops fits into this barrier paradigm.
The second universal response is how criticism triggers the fight or flight scenario. If the criticism is warranted but given in a perceived negative way, the recipient rapidly chooses to rebut the information or bury it as a future concern. The fight response aligns with the action potential trigger the genetically-driven defense mechanism creates as primes. The reverse, flight, occurs when the criticism is so demeaning the recipient chooses to retreat from the environment, often permanently.
Dealing with criticism is a personal choice. The optimal choice is to shift the criticism into a feedback cycle. The recipient chooses to endure the negative emotions to create a self-directed learning environment. The process requires avoiding confrontation with the person who delivered the criticism until anger subsides and critical processing of how to proceed occurs. The next steps are like a decision matrix with “go/no-go” action points. Request more information on the criticism with the stated intent of self-improvement with guidance over time. If a “go” is the response, offer to do the legwork, go the extra mile, and reaffirm this is so you can learn from the other party. If it is a “no-go,” refer to the universal attributes and decide the next step.
The “go” scenario can be very invigorating. By embracing the criticism as the trigger for your positive action plan, you invest in how to convert criticism into a feedback cycle, a skill set with infinite utility throughout your lifetime. One hidden attribute is seeing the destructive nature of criticism and using that knowledge to offer feedback cycles as your action path when you need to admonish someone else’s behavior or results. Being perceived as a “positive social change agent” instead of an insulting, demeaning person demonstrates you can address the action failures you discern in your environment while simultaneously enhancing the person(s) involved through engaging feedback cycles.