Is “Constructive Criticism” Constructive?

I lost another friend today. Apparently the power of my negativity is slaying them right and left. And even worse (according to this friend anyway) I don’t take “constructive criticism” well.

This got me thinking: why should you take criticism, constructive or otherwise? If it concerns your job, then you bluereally have no choice but to take it. If you ask a friend for a critique of your faults, then you should be graceful if you hear something you don’t like. But if someone points out your faults without being asked, then why should you “take it well”? Even if you know your faults (especially if you know them), criticism is hurtful.

Conversely, is it ever acceptable to offer constructive criticism? I don’t presume to know how people should live or how they should deal with their problems, so I don’t offer advice unless it is asked for, and not always then. But somehow, people assume they can offer me “constructive criticism” and expect me to like it.

“Constructive criticism” seems to be a euphemism for “I’m saying terrible things about you and you’re supposed to be grateful.” I guess I lied when I said I don’t offer advice because I’m going to do it now: if someone has a character trait you don’t like, deal with it, don’t expect them to change to suit you. If you are friends, be aware the person you are criticizing probably has a list of things they don’t like about you, but they are too kind (or too reticent) to tell you.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

14 Responses to “Is “Constructive Criticism” Constructive?”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    My opinion is, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Method is everything.

  2. jamerly Says:

    This is why I love reading blogs because it allows me to open up my eyes to other perspectives and I enjoyed this one. It is true someone should not say something they don’t like because there are probably things that you don’t like in return. As simple as it sounds I never actually thought of it this way so thank you.

  3. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    There was a time when criticism meant both the good and the bad. I have criticized my friend Lyn McConchie’s writing now for over two decades. I have written critiques if late and had them put out where I could on the internet. Are we still friends? Well, yes. She favors my honesty and I don’t go out of my way to hurt her or anyone else.

    Mind you, sometimes you can hit a cord without fully realizing it. Her novel Iron Years I said was ‘dangerous’ in that it made people think in the same way Catch 22 was dangerous when it first came out. I thought nothing much of making the comment since it seemed such an obvious one to make about the work but she thought it was great.

    I have been picked on in the past by critics who haven’t liked a particular story or whatever and have hung on to their dislike for whatever reason. I have such a critic in Melbourne who will never understand I am getting better at the craft and will no doubt continue to be a thorn in my side.

    Meanwhile I am saddened that my recent writer’s group folded. One of the writers offered good advice on my work which I have taken up. Since we didn’t know each other, personalities didn’t come into it. He understood the work, liked it and could see where small nips and tucks might improve it.

    Sure, critics point out faults but if you are a critic why not lead off with what is right rather than what is wrong? This is what I have a tendency to do.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You make good points, but there’s a big difference between critiquing a manuscript and criticizing a person.

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        Well, that Melbourne guy I was telling you about was more into criticizing the person as well as meanly critiquing the manuscript. Yes. Big difference between critiquing a piece of writing and criticizing a person if you don’t bring personalities into the latter. I don’t do much criticizing of others too harshly. It just comes back to bite you in the end. And since I do use my end to sit down on to use my computer that could be unfortunate.

  4. Rebecca Elizabeth Bradshaw Says:

    Hallelujah! Thank you for writing this blog.

  5. 22pamela Says:

    I really find this quite useful, Pat. I recently lost a friend due to her harsh unsolicited ‘constructive criticism’ about a situation regarding my, 20 year old, daughter received in an email. To make matters worse, she reworded her email and sent it again. Further inflicting harm. And yes, you are right, there was a litany of personality traits she possessed that I found irritating. But she was my friend of 8 years, and I would have never been so unkind or untoward her as she was to me.

  6. fishershannon Says:

    Agreed. We should feel free to offer advice freely only if asked – and even then we should avoid harshly criticizing (unless directly asked for brutal honesty). Friendships ostensibly exist to lift and support us. I think it is only acceptable to offer unsolicited advice/criticism is if someone is harming herself or someone else (actively or passively), as in the case of an intervention for addiction or abuse, or if someone needs medical attention but refuses to get it (depression, eating disorder, etc.). Even then, friendships are often lost when advice given with the best of intentions falls upon deaf ears (and the advisee’s rejection of the advice not understood or accepted).

    The bottom line is that other people’s lives are none of our business. We shouldn’t judge; we shouldn’t criticize; and, for God’s sake, we shouldn’t try to run our friends’ lives for them. But (warning: unsolicited advice ahead that might piss you off from someone who knows nothing of the situation other than what is in this post), if several close friends have approached you about the same issue, it is very likely out of concern for your well being. Perhaps you should step back and think about their message for a moment, and ask yourself if there is any truth to their (albeit poorly delivered) words. It could be they just love you and feel helpless, so they tried to “fix” the perceived problem the only way they knew how.

    My hope is that these friends simply want to see you happy and that the friendships can be mended in time. We all lose people along our path; there isn’t room for everyone – but those with whom we have deep, loving bonds are worth fighting for…and fighting with!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I did consider that, actually — that two or three people broaching the same issue could mean that I had a problem, but in no case were they concerned about me, only their own feelings. In fact, all were angry at me. Hence the charge of negativity. [I sent one of the email conversations to a therapist friend to get her take on the matter since I don’t really trust myself right now. I was afraid I was being unduly sensitive.]

      One friend called me negative and disempowering because I didn’t like this friend’s penchant for promising to call, making me wait for a call that didn’t come, not letting me know when plans changed, and then getting angry with me for mentioning the missed calls. (As if somehow it was my fault.) I think people use “negativity” to to mean something entirely different than what it really means. By calling the other person negative, it reduces their culpability, because a charge of “negativity” is hard to refute. If you say you’re not negative, they turn it around and use it as proof that you are. (I’m not a Pollyanna by any means, and I know that. I’m more of realist. At the moment, a not very happy realist, but I’m working on that.)

      Another person made a lunch date with me, and when she phoned at the last minute to change the time, she called me negative when I said I didn’t think I could make it because I had plans for the later time. (This was a one-time thing, so our friendship is intact.)

      The third friend took exception to character traits — who I am. If she doesn’t like me, then there’s really no point in pursuing the friendship. And criticizing one’s innate character is in no way constructive. As you say, perhaps pointing out harmful behaviors could be considered constructive criticism, but otherwise it is simply criticism.

      The difference between what they said and what you said is that you seem concerned with me. I appreciate that. Thank you.

      • fishershannon Says:

        It indeed sounds like they are in their own headspace and not using “negativity” correctly. I agree that a friendship with someone who doesn’t seem to like or appreciate who you are is definitely not worth trying to resurrect. It’s always sad when people go, but it makes room for those who DO care and appreciate who you are as a person. Life is too short to be berated by folks who have no right to berate you or insult you. Because it sounds like it was worse than “criticism” in the most recent case; it was downright insulting. No loss there (though I know it stings to lose anything at first – even a band-aid). Sending you big hugs! ❤

  7. fishershannon Says:

    P.S. You don’t need to be anything other than who you are to be awesome! The happiness will hopefully return in time. Meanwhile, if people are mean to you, tell them to fuck off! Apparently, cursing causes a rise in endorphins. So, let ’em have it! 🙂

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