Is there such a thing as constructive criticism? I was listening to a training by John and Julie Gottman, a couple of the most well-respected couples therapists and researchers, the other day, and they suggest that there really is no such thing. It is common for bosses, spouses…you name it…to attempt to offer constructive criticism, but research would suggest that it really is ineffective in achieving the desired results.
Why do you think that is? It seems as though being able to offer constructive criticism would be necessary to keep the world going ’round. After all, we have to be able to tell someone that they are doing something wrong or contrary to what we would like or need them to do. The Gottmans have studied hundreds of couples, and they separated these couples into two groups which they termed “The Masters” and “The Disasters”. Each of these groups handled teaching others what to do and what not to do in different ways. The Masters, of course, got favorable results, while the Disasters succeeded in undermining relationships with how they approached this interaction.
What did the Masters do, that the Disasters did not? What was so different about the two approaches? The Gottmans noted that the Masters were able to regularly focus on what their spouse or children were doing right, instead of focusing on what they were doing wrong. “Constructive criticism” is what the Disasters were attempting to use to correct behaviors, but they found that it wasn’t nearly as effective in teaching the other person what they wanted to see.
The Gottmans also developed a mathematical calculation, a ratio, of positive interactions to negative interactions, amongst the Masters and Disasters. For the Masters, the ratio of positive interactions (encouragement, focus on the positive, humor, etc.) to negative interactions (anger, criticism, focus on the negative, etc.) was 5:1. For the Disasters, that ratio was less than 1:1.
What can we glean from this study and put into practice in our own relationships? The knowledge that telling people how they are messing up really isn’t effective in changing behaviors, but finding every instance you can where they are doing the right thing and encouraging that is what really works.
Does that mean that we can’t ever say “ouch” or point out things that the other person is doing or not doing to hurt us? I think not. I just don’t think that is feasible or realistic, because it leaves the desired behavior a mystery and a guessing game for the other person. What I think it means is that we need to notice and acknowledge 5 good things for every “ouch” we bring. I think it means that under normal circumstances, most people don’t have the humility or self-esteem to really hear criticism well, and we need to recognize this and be careful with it. I think we need to be gentle with the feelings of others, and make it a special point to not skimp on the praise.
It was an interesting training. I’ll bring more insights from it in the coming weeks as I complete more of it. Stay tuned for more from the Gottmans…
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© 2015 Nancy Eisenman, MSW, LSW