The Slippery Slope of Constructive Criticism

My husband thinks I’ve become a bit too, er, verbose when I offer criticism to others.

“You’re not wrong about the things that you say,” Ted told me recently. “But you need to work on your tone.”

“Is that so?” I replied, my tone sharp. “Give me one example.”

My husband reminded me of an incident a few weeks ago, when we were discussing the current contraceptive coverage vs. religious freedom debate (an issue on which we largely agree). I introduced the topic in such a way that may have suggested that anyone who could deny birth control to women was nothing less than a backwards misogynist, and I guess my husband wanted a more balanced conversation.

“Just remember,” he said. “A topic like this can be a slippery slope.”

“A slippery slope?” I was honestly perturbed. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s a the kind of topic where there are strong feelings on both sides,” he said. “And neither side is going to give up anytime soon. You know—a slippery slope.”

I stared at him a moment. Then: “That’s not what slippery slope means! A slippery slope refers to an action that will eventually lead to other similar, less desirable events.”

I didn’t add, “You dummy!” but I guess my tone kind of implied it. And while my husband was eventually forced to admit that I was right on the slippery slope thing (which I was, thank you), he maintained that I could have picked a less condescending way to get my point across. And no, he’s not wrong (even if he was wrong on the slippery slope thing, but I probably need to let that go).

The world is generally made up of two kinds of people: those who can take and learn from criticism, and those who cannot. Thankfully, my husband is one of the former; he doesn’t balk when his flaws are calmly and respectfully pointed out. If he feels that I’ve been needlessly cruel and condescending, I’ll make a better effort to adjust my tactics in the future.

But all of this got me thinking about different types of criticism, and which types, if any, are most effective for encouraging positive change. I have written before about taking criticism, but it occurs to me now that giving it effectively can be just as difficult. We can all likely agree that it does no good to be out-and-out nasty, but I wonder if some of us are so afraid of conflict that we hold ourselves back from ever giving meaningful criticism at all. In other words, we err on the side of being “nice.”

I was nice as a first year teacher; so nice, in fact, that I once watched a student copy his report off of the back of a book and still couldn’t offer him a critical word. Now, with a bit more experience under my belt, I have no trouble telling my students when their work isn’t up to par. But if my husband is correct in saying that I’ve been too harsh lately, I wonder if I may be scarring some aspiring young writers for life, however inadvertently.

When we attempt to offer criticism, it’s easy to fall victim to the “slippery slope.” Slide one way, and you’re too nice. Slide the other way, and you’re too cruel. How, then, can we maintain our precarious perch at the very “top” of the slope?

My college writing professor was a master at this balancing act; he was known across campus for constructive criticism with an occasional harsh twist.

“Jenny is a very talented writer,” I remember him saying one day, after one of the more prolific students had shared a short piece with the class. “So why has she written a story that sucks?”

We all griped about our teacher’s blunt choice of words, but again and again we came back for more. Because deep down, we knew that he wanted to help us. And that made all the difference.

When we set out to constructively criticize another’s writing, it’s important for us to remember that we’re offering criticism in order to help the writer improve. We are not doing it to make ourselves feel smart. At least, we shouldn’t be. And if that’s why youare doing it, you should probably stop. Once you remember that your goal is to help the other person, it’s necessary to make sure the other person knows this, too. It helps, in this case, to make your criticism less about what has been done wrong, and more on what can be done to improve the work.

Every time I call a parent to let them know that a student is struggling, for example, I make sure to couch my criticisms in positive language (“Johnny really is very smart, Mrs. Jones…”) and end with real things that the student could actually do to improve (“If Johnny would make sure to turn in his homework every week, I know his grade would be much higher…”). As a result, I have yet to see a parent take a defensive position with me; instead, they all seem to eager work together with me for the good of their child. And everybody wins.

I decided to put it to the test just last week. While out to dinner with my parents, I noticed that Ted appeared to spend a lot of time on his cell phone. Instead of going with my first instinct, (“Don’t you realize how rude that is? God!”) I took a deep breath and said, “Can you please put that away? We’re trying to have a conversation here.”

Okay, so that wasn’t as sugary-sweet as it could have been—but Ted’s not fourteen years old, and he can take it. Besides, he understood that I was frustrated because I enjoy his company, and I wanted him to actually talk to us. He put the phone away. He probably knew I was at least trying.

Also, I apologized for that whole “slippery slope” thing.

It’s one thing to stand firm when you know you are right. But to insist on being right all the time, even to the detriment of the people you’re trying to help…well, that can be a slippery slope.

Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site has more examples of her work.


6 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope of Constructive Criticism

  1. This is no lie: I was once on hold with the IRS for THREE HOURS during tax season to fix a mistake that was actually on their end – not mine! When a human being finally came on the phone, I knew I had two options. One: blow a gasket at having to wait on the line for THREE HOURS . . . or, Two: blow sugar up his ____, since this poor IRS CSR was not the creator of my problem. I went with option number two. I asked him terribly nicely to please help me, presented him with my situation, and guess what? He resolved the simple clerical error in just a few minutes. Of course, if I had gone with option number one, he would likely have put me back on hold . . . for another three hours!

  2. My youth pastor’s wife sandwiched her critical comments between two glowing compliments. They say that always helps when offering criticism or critiques. Put the bad stuff in the middle because it makes the whole thing easier to swallow.

  3. Anything that doesn’t help the writer make the text better is a waste of their time and mine. Criticism is important, but there’s no reason that it can’t be nice. But it’s important that the “niceness” be not just genuine but relevant to the point at hand.

  4. I remember back in the day always being asked on a job interview if I can take “constructive criticism.” I’ve always wanted to answer “not sure, never met anyone who could give it.”

  5. I really think that there is a difference between the criticism that is given to students as opposed to those who are closer to us. I am an elementary music teacher. When I teach musical theater, I get to the point where we are practically doing drills. Why? Because when a passage needs fine tuning, repetition is the best method. It seems harsh, but in practice, it is effective.

    Your criticism with your students is how you honestly feel about their writing. You are paid to critique. That’s your job. One question remains, do you point out the things that they do well? It is entirely a balancing act.

    With criticism, there is a certain threshold in each level of relationships. The only expectations I have of family members is cooperation, communication, and self-sufficiency. I am not a keeper of any kind. I simply cannot keep track of everyone’s belongings. So, I will criticize when my husband is frantically running around in the morning. It’s a direct result of poor planning and time management. He asks, “Where’s my wallet?” I’d like to say, “Well, where is it? It’s not my wallet. How should I know?” Instead, I hold my tongue and say, “Where was the last place you saw it? Where do you normally keep it?” Then I offer the suggestion, “Why don’t you just keep it on the desk when you put your pants in the hamper in the evening? That way it is in plain sight.”

    Criticism is delicate. Sometimes it has to be harsh to get a point across. But, sometimes, it requires a little more tactfulness. I only resort to being blunt when it doesn’t appear as if I am getting my point across. As it goes with your students, pull no punches. They are there to learn.

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