Quotes and Wisdom

"Constructive Criticism" = An Oxymoron

"Criticism can be effective when there is something that must be destroyed or dissolved, but it is capable only of harm when there is something to be built."
~ Adapted from Carl Jung
I have chosen an adaptation of this quote from Carl Jung for this week's offering because it seems to do a very nice job of speaking to the function of criticism in our world. Not so much whether it is right or wrong, but how the concept may be impacting our success. In fact, I would imagine that almost all of us want to be more effective in our own lives and in our interactions with others, and therefore, I suggest that we look at this statement to see if it might contain good information as to how we might want to become more purposeful in our use of criticism as a tool for influence and/or change.

For example, it's probably fair to say that all of us have been critical of ourselves or others at some time in our lives. We might criticize ourselves for making some mistake or for failing to live up to some personal standard or ideal. We criticize our government for making decisions and/or enacting policies with which we disagree. We criticize our children for their disobedience or mistakes. We even criticize strangers for their behavior, choice of clothing, language, religion, or anything else with which we disapprove.

Of course, as you know, if you have been following these quotes and comments for any length of time, it is never my goal to "criticize" or sit in judgment of your choices. I just wonder (given Dr. Jung's quote) whether we are truly using the concept of criticism in a way that is truly serving us? For example, Dr. Jung says that criticism can be an effective form of communication when there is something that must be destroyed, or dissolved. Obviously such concepts as slavery, child abuse, discrimination, and genocide fall into this category, and almost all of us agree that these should indeed be destroyed, dissolved, irradicated, etc. Therefore, to stand up and criticize problems such as these seems very much to be the right thing to do.

However, I wonder if we may also be using criticism when our goal is less to destroy and more to build, inspire and/or help create more productive thoughts or behaviors in ourselves or others? For example, when we are trying to help our children learn a life lesson around compassion, organization, or working and playing well with others… is our goal to destroy or to build? When we are giving feedback to those we supervise at work, what are we really going for, just reducing their bad behavior or helping them build/create a more effective way of accomplishing a task? When we are criticizing ourselves for some mistake, is our goal to just avoid that behavior, or to build on the experience and use it as good information for what we want to create in the future?

This is where I believe Dr. Jung's quote on the most effective use of criticism can be wonderfully informative to those of us who want to become more influential in our lives and in the lives of others. If there is indeed something that needs to be destroyed, then criticism may be exactly what is called for. However, if our goal is to construct or build something… a responsible, successful child, an effective supervisee, a quality relationship with members of our family, our own self-esteem and self-confidence, then criticism is not the best tool to employ.

Further, those of you who have seen me present or have been following this forum for any length of time know that all thoughts, emotions and behaviors come from specific parts of the brain. The desire to destroy is part of the protective function of the lower 20% (the brainstem) and as such is perfect for a fight or flight situation. However, the desire to build or support effective change comes from the Top of the Mind, or the upper 80% of the brain, and thus being critical can never be constructive. Can we give others good information about how they can achieve their goals? Of course, if they ask, or if that is our responsibility as parents. Does criticism help us build on our strengths and move forward with more confidence and creativity… rarely.

Therefore, I suggest that we make sure of our goal before we begin anything. Are we looking to construct or destroy? Do we reach for the sledge hammer of criticism or the blue print of what we want to build? It is my belief that when we choose from these options in the most purposeful way, our potential for success goes up exponentially. Here's to a life of choosing the right tools for the right job and accessing the best in ourselves and others.
All the best, Dr. Bill