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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Insults to Feedback: Exploring Types of Criticism

As promised at the Embodied Connection Games Circle themed “Criticism”, here’s an exploration of giving and receiving criticism. Throughout this exploration we will make some distinctions to help us communicate kindly and effectively, whether we are the provider or the recipient of criticism.

Let’s say a baker has baked an apple pie. And while you and I would gladly volunteer to taste a slice (it’s sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon), the baker’s boss has something to say about it that is not a praise. And how he says it will make a difference.

Distinction 1: Subject vs Object or Identity vs Behaviour

“You are a terrible baker!” This statement is addressed at the person, the subject, an “I” nobody wants to be in the shoes of, because when criticism gets personal, it hurts. If the criticism is addressed at an object, an “it”, we might learn something useful about it. “Your pie is bad” is much different than “You are bad”. You can be a wonderful person and bake bad pies. I know I have. And you still like me, do you not?

An object is either a tangible object, like a pie, or a behaviour, such as baking. “Your baking is bad” is an objective criticism and thus, it is not personal.

Distinction 2: Preference vs Value Judgment 

“I don’t like apple pie” is a subjective preference statement that speaks about the taste of the speaker. “This apple pie is bad” is a value judgment, and it speaks about the “it”, the object, the pie. It is still a subjective assessment - “Beauty (or taste) is in the eye (or taste buds) of the beholder” but if inquiring we might uncover some criteria worth looking at (undercooked dough, or stale flour).

Preference is purely subjective: you can look at the most exquisite, five-stars, price winning pies, and not care, because you don’t like pie. If you do like apple pie, first - we can be friends; and second - you may still find this particular pie to be bad if it’s salted instead of sweetened, or mouldy, or undercooked. In which case you may offer a value judgment about the pie and say “It (the object), the pie, is bad”.

Distinction 3: Feeling vs Thought

Feelings are body-felt experiences. Thoughts are ideas, concepts, values and such, and they’re nowhere to be found in your body, although thoughts may be coupled with feelings, and they often are. At least this is true in my case: I am a woman, and very sensitive and emotional if you need to know.

There are two kinds of feelings: sensory feelings, and emotional feelings. Examples are: Sleepy, itchy, calm, sad, joyful, hungry, satiated, antsy, annoyed, pleased, delighted.

Examples of thoughts: “Apple pies are sweet”; “Tomorrow is Tuesday”; “Monkeys eat bananas” and “I’m curious what is behind that door”. 

When someone says: “I feel that your baking is bad” that’s a thought. If they said: “I have a bad feeling about eating your pie” that would be a feeling. Just because one inserts the word “feel” in a statement, doesn’t automatically turn a thought into a feeling.

This distinction helps you distinguish between a personal preference and a value judgment. “I feel nauseated looking at this pie” describes a subjective feeling; “This pie looks nauseating” is a value judgment. 

Poor baker. Let’s move on.

Distinction 4: Insult vs Feedback or Destructive vs Constructive Criticism

Behind any behaviour, there is a motive, a why. Behind any declared statement, there is a motive, a why, whether intentional and conscious or otherwise. 

“Look, Riley, about your pie…” could be marking the beginning of a statement intended to cause pain, or a statement intended to lead to improvement. 

Personal criticism is destructive, with or without name calling. Constructive criticism addresses an object, an “it”, that could be improved. 

“You’re awful” is an insult. “The pie is awful” is still harsh, but with some heart and skill (as we’ll see below) it could lead to making better pies.

Distinction 5: Generalization vs Specifics, or Vague vs Precise

“You always ruin pies” is a generalization, and speaks nothing of today’s apple pie. Not one word. 

“This pie is bad” speaks indeed about our pie du jour, but “bad” is too vague a word, and we don’t know how specifically it is bad, and what it needs to be good.

“The dough is raw, undercooked” - is indeed specific and precise. 

“This apple pie is undercooked, and needs to go back to the oven for another ten minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit” is specific, precise, and leads to improvement.

“Riley, your apple pie has the right ratio between dough and filling, it is flavourful and perfectly sweetened, and it’s also undercooked, and needs to go back in the oven for another ten minutes” This is positive feedback: it is objective, specific, precise, and it has heart, as it first mentions all that is well and good about the pie.

Useful responses to criticism

What do you do if you are Riley the baker, and your apple pie is the object of criticism?

Be curious about the motive of the critic: “What makes you say that?” Is an inquiry which should help you reveal whether you’re dealing with an insult or a feedback. If dealing with an insult, I leave your response up to your own good judgment; I just want to remind you that you are the one with a pie in your hand, so you have options…

Be curious about the specifics of the feedback: “What about this pie do you specifically find bad?” And be curious about the possibility for improvement: “What do you think that this pie needs, or what could I do differently next time?” 

This should take care of any kind of criticism coming your way. 

And as soon as you’ve gotten that apple pie figured out, and it’s properly baked, come on over with the pie. Message me for the address. I’ll set the table.

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