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29 Av 5766 - August 23, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Constructive Criticism
by A.Ross

Nobody is perfect, yet none of us likes to be criticized or censured, in any way. The people most likely to disparage us are the ones who know us best, i.e. our nearest and dearest, the family whom we love. However, the criticism is frequently levelled at an inopportune moment, or in an abrasive way, and the person on the receiving end is not grateful.

Miriam Adahan advises her clients to say, "Thank you for helping me to work on my middos," when they feel that someone is denigrating them. The theory is sound, but then most people are not completely in control of their feelings. If a person can control his emotions and the immediate instinct to retort with a sharp answer, he might benefit from the criticism.

There is usually more than a grain of truth in the words newlyweds use when they criticize each other. They would avoid much heartache and many hurt feelings if they would learn how to word their criticism, and when to voice it. There are many classes and workshops which help people to avoid the obvious pitfalls. If partners sincerely like each other, and want to make a success of their marriage, they will learn how to criticize, and how to accept the criticism!

Censure voiced in anger, and in extremes e.g. "You always . . . " is unpalatable, and even if we restrain ourselves, and do not answer, we are annoyed. Our natural instinct is to defend ourselves, and also to argue: Who does our critic think s/he is? He is no better than I am. The second reaction we have is to fling the criticism straight back at the critic: "Physician, first heal yourself." When we are less irritated, and have time to reflect on the criticism, we might realize that actually, there is some sense in what he said; I could really make use of that idea and it would help me.

There are several ways of receiving criticism. We discussed the first method of not answering, of keeping calm. The second stratagem is to remember that some people are always finding fault. When up against the chronic fault-finder, especially a member of the family, you have to realize that this person probably has an inferiority complex.

State your own opinion, but without animosity. Do not get caught into the trap of counter attack, but neither do you have to put up with constant verbal abuse. If it is at work, and is really getting under your skin, the boss, who has till now belittled any suggestions on your part, might begin to respect you for voicing your opinion firmly. One can smile and switch off with such a person and then either make use of some of the criticism, if it is constructive, or simply forget it. The critic will find the next victim and will forget it anyway, till the next time you cross his path.

Then there is the idea of "asking for more," in the positive aspect. Show a genuine interest in the other person's opinion, even if you are rather resenting it. Keep eye contact, thus showing that you are not cowed by the criticism, but would really like to understand the other one's opinion; it keeps the conversation calm and on an adult level. When the tirade ceases for a moment, just say calmly, "Please tell me more; I'm listening." In fact, by turning it into a conversation, you might really learn something important to you, although it was imparted in rather an unpleasant manner.

There is no excuse for mockery and derision when trying to improve a person. On the other hand, as shown, criticism is a useful instructor. Thus a person is entitled to say, "I do not like the way you speak to me." Nevertheless, although it is very difficult to work on ourselves, once we have heard the complaint, we have to take notice. A confident person might be able to say, "I think you are right, but it would have been kinder if you had phrased it in a different way." Another example, "You may well be right, but I find it difficult to accept criticism which is said so antagonistically." After having stated our point of view, if we can overcome our natural aversion to being censured, we will realize that our critic is really just passing on a message from all our friends; he is showing us the way to self-improvement.

So far, we have discussed ways of reacting to criticism. How are we to impart criticism for it to be most effective?

Firstly, there are some cases when we should not even think of criticizing. Mothers- and daughters-in-law for example. If your daughter-in-law is the untidiest creature on earth, it will not make any difference for the better if you mention it to her. Nor will she be grateful if you begin to tidy the house for her. Phone before you visit, and compliment her on whatever you can, and keep your eyes down! You will even have to control your body language!

Teenage children are also allergic to criticism and although it is our responsibility to guide them and help them, silence is often more useful than speech. A written note with the complaint couched between words of approbation, is also a more useful tool than criticism at this age. With younger children, one can use constructive criticism very easily. "I do like to see a nice tidy playroom before you come to supper. Can you manage in five minutes?" will work just as well as "Look at this horrible mess! You know how I hate to see it like this."

On a personal note: as a young teacher in my first job, a teacher on the staff, very much my senior, was constantly finding fault with me. I did not thank her for her unsolicited advice, nor did it help me to "work on my middos." In fact, she often reduced me to tears. With hindsight, my handling of children and my teaching skills improved greatly as a direct result of her criticism! I used to discuss her remarks with another member of staff, who showed me how to utilize her unwanted observations, after first smoothing my ruffled feathers. I was not experienced enough at the time, nor did I have the self-confidence, to "ask for more," as suggested above.

One twelve-year-old girl once wrote a short story for me, that her mother had had a new baby, and she and her five siblings had decided to paint the bathroom the day she went into the hospital as a surprise for her. She described how there was paint everywhere, in every part of the house, and on all the clothes, and that there was no way they were able to clean it up, even with their father's help, before the mother came home with the new baby. She ended the story, "Daddy went to fetch Mommy from the hospital, and she came into the house, carrying the new baby. We wondered if she would be cross when she saw the mess, but she looked around and smiled at us happily, saying, 'You did a good job.' "

I have not met this girl for over half a century, but feel sure that with a non-judgmental mother like that, she grew up to be the same, seeing only the good in people, and making them feel good. Some children have excellent social skills from a very early age and know how to communicate with their peers and with adults, making everyone around them feel good. Others, perfectly normal children, have to learn what to say and how to say it and what not to say. They mature and grow up to be popular people, less popular ones, and some who are thoroughly unpopular.

The first group are those who do not see faults in other people. If they are in a position of authority, they may be aware of some shortcoming, or imperfection in their subordinate's work, but they will formulate their criticism in such a way, that the employee will not realize that s/he is being corrected.

Those of us who are inclined to be critical and to see faults in others, are never too old to change. Unless we have a decided personality disorder, if we are inclined to put the world to rights, we can begin to curb our natural instincts at any age. We may not be able to restrain all our thought processes, but we can definitely prevent them from passing our lips.


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