Does this sound familiar: “Would you mind if I give you a little feedback?” Or, “Can I be honest with you?” (Here comes the criticism!). You know what’s coming and your body reacts immediately. Maybe you catch yourself holding your breath for a moment, your heart picks up a beat, or your stomach clenches up in anticipation. Even worse, is when the evaluator doesn’t ask you if you’re open to hearing their criticism or not, but informs you of your shortcomings with little or no warning. You are going to hear it whether you want to or not.

No one is immune from criticism. You may get criticized on the job, from a client, from a family member, a friend, or a stranger. When is constructive criticism not constructive but destructive? I think all criticism is destructive; varying in degrees of hurtfulness, mean-spiritedness, insensitivity, and the reactivity of the one who is doing the criticizing. The criticism tells you much more about the evaluator than the recipient. What is their intention? Why are they critiquing you? Isn’t it just a form of judgment–their judgment?

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” ~Wayne Dyer

Let’s take the example of giving a presentation at school. The students and the teacher are asked to evaluate a fellow student’s Power Point presentation. One student in the audience thinks the whole thing stinks–they don’t give any positive feedback (let’s say it turns out the person had been sleeping through it). One student loved the background music (they found it hard to focus because they are in a new relationship, but they did hear the music). A couple students thought there could be more text and less pictures (they really want an “A” in the class). A few students thought the opposite and wanted more pictures (they are visual learners and needed more stimulation). One student thought it was awesome and wouldn’t change a thing (they are best friends with the presenter). The teacher gave you a “B”–he thought you didn’t do enough and could have added more information about your topic. Yikes! So many opinions! Who’s “right?” The teacher because they have more authority, wisdom, or discernment? What if they aren’t having a good day and take it out on you, or they don’t like you? Or, they think their way of evaluating performances is correct, but the teacher down the hall does it a completely different way and would have given an “A.” How about the students? Which opinions do you focus on to make changes? Which opinions do you trust?

Those who believe in constructive criticism would say that those people who gave the student direction–where and how they could do better–had the intention to provide helpful feedback. However, it is still just their evaluations and judgments. The criticism being provided comes from subjective evaluations–criticism is all subjective! Pay attention to who is giving you this advice (and if you even asked for it) and ask yourself if it is relevant for making improvements. Ask yourself if they–the criticizers–are in any position to criticize you. We all can learn from feedback, especially if it is well-intentioned, but if it is coming from someone who has their own shortcomings especially in that area, maybe their intentions aren’t so well-meaning.

What are some things to watch for when you feel a need to criticize? Ask yourself these questions:

Are you threatened by the other person? Some people feel better about themselves after they criticize. Instead of helping the other person up, so to speak, they stomp them down.
Are you grounded and centered enough to have a conversation that promotes growth and learning? Check in with your feelings: Are you angry, resentful, or frustrated? Are you intentionally trying to hurt the other person?
Are you calling them names or making accusations that are intentionally hurtful and not based in fact?
Are you trying to meet your needs and are not open to hearing or meeting their needs in the process?
Is it more of a venting session with no direction given in how the other person can improve? Is the recipient defensive? It may not be that they can’t take criticism, but that it is actually verbal abuse, hasn’t been asked for, or is again a venting session.
Are you assuming you are right–stringing along certain facts to create a story in your mind of how you think things are? Could it be there are other interpretations and perceptions of the facts? Is your filter coloring the way you see this situation or person?
Are you being judgmental or making an observation? What is your intention in criticizing the other person?
Have you brought in other people to attempt to demoralize the recipient?
How would you feel if you received the same feedback? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Is the conversation more of a monologue than a dialogue?
How will this criticism affect the relationship? Am I willing to be “right” over being happy?

Criticism–or better yet, feedback, can help us grow, but only if the other person is receptive to it. These kinds of conversations, if approached with a positive intention, a spirit of genuine learning, and of honest inquiry and exploration can be effective in fostering growth. If you need to give feedback, sandwiching the suggestions between positive and encouraging statements helps. Be curious and explore how and where the person can improve–instead of putting on them all the reasons they are not enough. Of course, at work or with someone you aren’t as close to, the conversation will take on a different tone compared with a friend or family member. But, we are all human beings who deserve respect.

Be a coach; be a leader; be a team player. Surround yourself with people who are going to lift you up, not put you down. Continually ask yourself: Does this empower me to be my best? Does this person empower me to be my best? Keep your environment free of negativity by keeping clear boundaries of people who insist on criticizing you. Learn to trust your own intuition as to whether feedback from another is mean-spirited or good-hearted; thoughtless or malicious, or well-intentioned. If you feel a need to criticize another, ask yourself the questions above before jumping in with your two-cents worth/positive suggestions. Help the other person out by giving them direction–how and where they can make the improvements–make it genuine feedback.

Do you have people in your life who criticize you? Do they do it with good intention? Are they trying to change you without honoring or respecting the person you are?

Author's Bio: 

Nicole Nenninger is an author, coach, runner, mom + step-mom to 4 kids, and wife. She coaches clients on work-life balance, family, relationships, divorce, and life-altering events. She has a Master's in psychology and is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.