Friday, 20 April 2012 00:00

Are you a Builder or a Breaker?

Article as it appeared in Vroukeur magazine. By Carien Grobler (Translated into English)

The word "criticism" sounds negative and unacceptable in a world where everyone says you should focus on the positive. It can however be positive, writes Carien Grobler.

“My 10-year-old son’s homework is full of mistakes. He’s intelligent, but has a tendency to race through his homework so that he can watch TV,” says Jenny van Bergen, a mother of two from Somerset West.

“Thinking of his welfare, I pointed out his mistakes and asked him to read out loud the sentences that didn’t make sense. I thought he would be grateful for my support, but instead I got a long face and a slammed door for my trouble. Was I being cruel, or did my criticism have value?”

The simple answer is that negative criticism has a negative effect – for the receiver as well as the one giving the criticism. So says Claire Newton, a psychologist from Glenwood.  “It doesn’t matter whether it is an adult or a child receiving the criticism, it has a negative effect. One should remember that children are often more vulnerable than adults to the effects of criticism.”

Are You Just Pointing Out Mistakes?

Claire explains that negative criticism focus only on the mistakes that someone makes. “Think of the last time you were criticised. You may have done many things well, but the criticiser only focused on your one mistake and ignored the rest. You probably felt attacked, and as if you weren’t being seen in your entirity. This is upsetting and difficult to process.”

According to Claire, negative criticism can lead to low self-esteem and a lack of motivation, as well as create negative feelings towards the person giving the criticism.

“Children who are criticised develop low self-esteem. That is, they think they are useless and simply not good enough. This is especially true when a child is criticised time after time for the same thing.

“For example, if a child is constantly criticised for not doing well at school, or for not hitting the ball correctly with the bat, that child soon starts to learn that he can’t get it right. He feels he is too stupid or clumsy to be successful. This belief can stay with a child all his life.”

Claire says the criticism doesn’t have to be constant. “I have had patients who were harshly criticised just once as a child, and never forgot it. It had a negative influence on their adult lives.

“No one likes to fail, and the person being criticised easy loses his motivation to continue the activity.”

Claire says that a man who, for example, in his wife’s opinion, doesn’t help with the housework, will eventually stop even trying to help. “The same goes for a sports team that’s constantly criticised for not playing better. Eventually they will lose the motivation to try harder because they don’t believe they will ever improve.”

Beat The Critic

“If parents want their children to be successful, they must stop the negative criticism and look for positive things they can praise their children for,” says Claire.

“Children and adults are motivated to try harder if they believe there is a chance of success. We all enjoy participating in activities at which we do well!”

Negative criticism often has a greater impact on a child than physical punishment. “Children want to please their parents,” says Claire. “If they are not offered this opportunity, they feel unsettled and guilty. To know that a parent is disappointed with them is often a far greater punishment for a child than a spanking. The tears will fall then not because of physical pain but of the emotional pain that children experience whenever they feel they’ve disappointed their parents.”

It’s also important to remember that negative criticism doesn’t only have a negative impact on the person at the receiving end, but also on the one giving the criticism.

“The receiver of the criticism can harbour negative thoughts about the giver, especially if the criticism was not asked for. Moreover, critical people are generally negative and fault-finding, meaning other people do not like being in their company. They are not popular and are seldom invited to social functions.”

This Must Help

Criticism can be constructive, say the experts. The ability to offer and accept thoughtful, constructive criticism is part of basic personal interaction. We all have things to learn, we can all improve, and the insight, wisdom and acceptance of other people helps us do this.

“Criticism can be positive when it is given in the correct way,” says Claire.  “If we keep to a set of guidelines, our feedback is more likely to be constructive. That doesn’t mean that feedback only has to be postitive. Negative feedback, given skillfully, is just as important.”

She explains that constructive feedback makes you feel good about yourself, but also offers new information on how to improve. “Destructive criticism makes you feel bad with nothing to build on. Criticism becomes positive when we think of it as feedback rather than as criticism, and follow guidelines for giving constructive feedback.”

Claire gives these five guidelines to master positive criticism:

Be Sure of What you Want to say

Practise what you want to say beforehand with someone else if necessary. It may also help to write down what you want to say. Be prepared tell the person something that you liked, something you would like to them to improve and then another thing you liked, to end the conversation on a positive note.

Begin Positively

“If a child gets three A’s and one B, don’t just focus on the B,” says Claire. “Most people need encouragement, and want to hear when they are doing something right.  Therefore, begin your feedback with things that you liked - and be specific. If you’re giving a speaker feedback about his speech, you could say that you liked his humour, but it’s actually better to say that you liked a specific joke he made because it helped the audience relax.”  

Give Just Enough Feedback

If you overload a person with feedback, it reduces its impact. Therefore, choose  only two important areas that you feel need to be improved. In this way, the person receiving the feedback won’t feel attacked and overwhelmed.

During this stage, it is even more important to be specific, says Claire. “Let’s stay with the example of the speaker. You could highlight how they could use their voice or body language more effectively, or point out other things that require attention.”

Always offer an alternative to the things you are criticising. “Don’t wave your arms about” isn’t helpful, and can be seen as being negative. Rather say, “When you wave your arms about, it distracts the audience‘s attention. I would suggest that you rather keep your arms still (demonstrate) and only use them when you want to emphasise a point.”

Finally, describe the things you liked most. This will leave the person feeling good about something they did really well. Remember, the more specific your feedback, the more motivational and useful it is.

Focus on the Activity or Behaviour

Focus on the person’s behaviour or actions, not on their character traits. You could, for example, tell a colleague that you felt they talked too much during a meeting, rather than you think they’re domineering. The former is an observation of what you saw and heard, while the latter refers directly to his character.

Be Descriptive Rather Than Judgemental

Refer to what happened without being judgmental - saying that it was right or wrong, good or bad, nice or naughty. You could say, “You don’t pronounce your words clearly, and you speak too softly to be heard,” rather than, “You are a terrible speaker.”

“Remember, judgements arise out of a value system, while descriptions are a neutral reporting of events,” says Claire.