THE BLOG
06/21/2010 08:21 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2015

Are You Trying To Criticize For Success?

Do you have the ability to look at a situation and instead see what's wrong with it? Perhaps you have the ability to look at something and see how it could be improved? Same ability, really.

If you have the ability to perceive what's wrong or to identify what would make something better, then you may possess the ability some would call "discernment."

Merriam-Webster tells us that discernment is the ability or "power to see what is not evident to the average mind."

Do you find yourself in rather frequent bouts of criticism? Do you criticize how others think? How they drive? What they do for a living?

If so, I'll bet you also have a pretty accomplished "inner critic." Do you also find yourself criticizing your own self? Ever call yourself names, either out loud or under your breath? I know I do. My favorite is to call myself "idiot" when I do something that I consider to be less than thoughtful, useful, or intelligent.

Of course, my ability to criticize myself spills over into my ability to criticize others. There was a time in my life when I actively criticized others. It didn't really matter the context, I would "happily" criticize someone else for their political views, relationship gaffes, how they dress, what they do for a living and just about anything you can think of.

What makes this propensity toward criticism even more challenging is that often the criticisms are well spotted. The object of the criticism may be accurate - you may be "right" - they are making a mistake, doing something that doesn't work, or creating even more grief for themselves.

However, just because our criticisms may be accurate doesn't mean they are useful.

Very few of us seem to appreciate being criticized or being called "idiots." Have you noticed? Rarely does criticizing another person or calling anyone names seem to produce much that is useful or appreciated. The line of volunteers seeking additional "constructive criticism" is notably short.

Years ago, I thought I had found a way of making criticism more palatable by adding a dose of humor, usually in the form of sarcasm. However, it took some time before I discovered that the quality of my critical humor was often counterproductive, regardless of how well intentioned it might have been.

A big part of my own awakening took place 30 years ago during a relationship seminar I was conducting. I was working with someone who professed a desire to improve his relationship skills and couldn't figure out why people were initially attracted to him, and then quickly turned away. He was the archetype of tall, dark and handsome with a flashy personality and quick mind.

After working with him for 15-20 minutes, I turned to him and said, "You know, Fred - you remind me of a Corvette. It's pretty, flashy, powerful, sleek and all kinds of other cool things. The only problem? It's made of plastic - if you bump into the wrong way, it just shatters."

Fred laughed. Everyone laughed. He sat down and started to cry.

He came up to me later and asked: "How did you know that I collect Corvettes?" He also told me that the metaphor was powerful for him and helpful. I felt particularly impressed with myself.

Shortly afterward, my mentor who happened to be observing this particular seminar, came up to me and offered a somewhat different perspective. He asked how I viewed the interaction and I told him what Fred had shared with me. My mentor countered with this observation. "While this one may seem to have worked, you should consider that your approach leaves them laughing on the outside but bleeding on the inside."

Talk about the proverbial ton of bricks: this one little observation nearly 30 years ago continues to inform my life today.

I have learned that while my criticisms may stem from the ability to perceive how things could be improved, they can easily remain focused on what's wrong, what's missing, etc. By shifting my focus to what could be improved, instead of solely on what's wrong, I find there's room for me to transform the nature of the conversation, and to find positive pathways forward.

Sticking to what's wrong can be awfully seductive. After all, in many instances, the criticisms are well founded. But who needs more criticism? My experience suggests that many of us could use assistance in how to turn criticism into positive action.

The next time you find yourself engaged in a bout of criticism, whether directed to yourself or someone else, try these questions and see what you can produce.
  • What outcome are you trying to produce?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What are you doing to get there?
  • How well is it working?
  • What could you imagine doing that would make it even better?

This kind of approach will still require addressing the mistake, what's not working, but it may help shift the focus out of the mire and into an area of improvement.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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