“When people stop giving you constructive criticism, they have most likely given up on you.”
Those of us who are activists, organizers or leaders should know the importance of constructive criticism. I can expand this group to include students, parents, business owners, employees, members of organized sports teams, spouses, and boyfriends/girlfriends.
The contemporary world we occupy (though seriously flawed) contains a plethora of ways to improve and become more effective. However, as much as we may read spiritualist and motivational books, meditate, live a natural lifestyle, or deem ourselves “positive,” “empowered,” and “working to improve ourselves,” many of us DO NOT APPRECIATE the importance of constructive criticism. And to the extent that we don’t, we severely compromise all of our efforts toward self-improvement/empowerment.
What is Constructive Criticism?
According to Wikipedia, constructive criticism is,
The process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one. The purpose of constructive criticism is to improve the outcome.
Let’s examine what this means. According to the definition, when a person offers us constructive criticism, they do so in a manner that is balanced. They state positive things along with the criticism; They offer valid and well-reasoned opinions, meaning that what they say makes good sense and is accurate; They offer their opinions in a friendly manner, meaning that they are not yelling, do not speak in a condescending manner, and do not name-call or insult us. Lastly, constructive criticism intends to improve an immediate or future outcome; In other words, the advice or opinion given is designed to make a person more effective or productive.
I begin with this because all criticism is not constructive. The criticism may simply be untrue. Or, if the opinion is insulting and delivered disrespectfully, most people will not be open to receiving it. This is normal and should be expected. Also, if the criticism involves yelling, profanity, and attacks on a person, it is not constructive. When people offer this type of criticism, we have the right to challenge them and refuse it.
However, there are times when a person offers valid opinions that are helpful; they thank or commend us before offering the criticism; they express appreciation for our idea or plan; They explain how something we did or failed to do caused them wasted time or money, or caused an activity to fail; They explain how our actions made them feel disrespected; They give us good suggestions to help us avoid making the same mistake in the future. And although the criticism offered is constructive and pleasantly presented, we become defensive and even argumentative. Instead of acknowledging the criticism as valid, we rush to explain our good intentions. Sometimes we even offer a variety of excuses instead of a simple apology, admission, and statement of intent to do better next time.
The dangers of not embracing constructive criticism
When we respond to constructive criticism in the ways mentioned above, you do great damage to ourselves and others in the following ways.
- We identify ourselves as a very immature person
- We cause people to distrust our character, judgement and leadership
- We set ourselves up to keep repeating the same mistakes
- We cause those offering criticism to resent and lose respect for us
- People stop offering constructive criticism and allow us to fail without intervening
- We cause our relationships, jobs, businesses, and other important endeavors to fail
- We fail to improve and become wiser/more effective
How to deal with constructive criticism
- Listen closely to the criticism to make sure you understand exactly what’s said
- Ask yourself if the criticism is valid (accurate or true)
- Acknowledge that the criticism is valid, apologize if necessary, and explain what you’ll do to improve in the future
- Express appreciation to the person for bringing the issue to your attention. Only people who care about you offer constructive criticism.
- Avoid whining, crying, tantrums, or negative attitudes and refuse to make excuses or attempt to justify your actions. This only makes you look weak and immature.
I’ve been in several situations throughout my life where constructive criticism came into play. As a football player, poet, writer, activist, student, employee and business owner, I’ve benefited immensely from constructive criticism. Like anyone, I am sometimes sensitive to criticism. Sensitivity isn’t always a virtue, especially when it causes us to have several blind spots. I’ve learned to see such experiences as opportunities to improve and become more effective.
Nowhere is this realization more important than in cases where the critic is someone we love and respect. How can you say you love or respect someone if you cannot welcome their valid, balanced, and well-meaning criticism? We also need to understand that refusing valid criticism is arrogant. There are people walking this Earth who consider themselves “humble,” but can’t handle valid criticism!
The brazen, hard-headed type is destined for a life of failure, misery and loneliness unless they learn this vital lesson: Accepting and welcoming good advice doesn’t make you weak or unintelligent; doing so makes you empowered and wise. In fact, I actively solicit constructive criticism from others. And I put distance between myself and those who can’t handle it. A word to the wise is sufficient… Embrace constructive criticism or suffer the consequences!! You’ve been warned…
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.