Susan Steen

Susan Steen

“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ― Norman Vincent Peale

For years, I’ve said to my husband that if I am ever being unpleasant, I’d like to know.

Apparently, it took him more than 30 years to tell me, and I didn’t handle it too well. I felt ripped apart on my insides as I tried to come to terms with the fact that I’m not a perfect wife, nor a perfect person. Not only did he suffer because of the criticisms I must have made, he suffered because of my reaction, and I suffered because I was disappointed in myself on every front. I thought I was better than that.

He surely hoped to hear that he was doing a stellar job of being a husband, yard man and plumber. I did not meet those hopes, and instead, we both came away wounded — and I guarantee he wishes he had never opened his mouth. That is no way to live for anyone, and it’s a reminder of how I live my life pretty well outside of home, asking for constructive criticism, working to be better.

Peale points out what we should each recognize in ourselves what needs to be changed, that it will save us, whereas praise will ruin us (I wonder if my husband will be happy to know I didn’t want to ruin him with too much praise).

As I’ve discovered in the past several years, I have opinions, and while I’d like to think they are worthy of being considered highly by the rest of you, I have learned that in order for my opinions to be meaningful, they need to be backed up and shaped by those who are wiser. They also need to be filed down sometimes to remove their edges.

I embrace this pretty fully because I want relationships to be healthy. And yet, I can bristle — not because of your criticism but because of my disappointment in myself. We don’t have to know it all, though, and once we are open to a little help, our growth knows no real boundaries.

Think about that. You are not an all-knowing anyone. You know a lot about something — maybe you are a remarkable carpenter, teacher, drummer, assembly line worker, statistician, nurse or photographer. Remarkable isn’t the same as all-knowing and perfect. Letting go of our belief that we are everything means being saved by a little criticism, the constructive kind, instead of ruined by the praise of those who want to make us feel better.

Whether it’s a relationship with a spouse or partner, a child, a boss, a friend, or a contemporary in some field of study, being able to give and receive constructive criticism is the difference between saving or ruining a person. If you want to improve, let’s look at a few things you might try.

First, in giving criticism:

1. Begin with a positive. In what I know as the sandwich method, we focus on tasty bread on the outside and the “issues” on the inside, always beginning and ending with a positive.  People need to know they are valued.

2. Chew on it. The first time I saw this listed as a way to do better with offering criticism/feedback, I latched right on. I have never been a huge fan of meat because it takes forever to chew, and when I picture myself chewing on what I want to say to someone, it’s a visual I understand. The idea is that if we chew on the words we feel we must speak, we might decide our way of thinking wasn’t so necessary to push on someone else right then. Timing is everything, and if you take time to chew on your words, you might decide another day or not at all will be the best time.

3. Be specific. What is it you think they could do differently? Ranting that you’re tired of being the one who does the dishes isn’t as helpful as saying, “Hey, I really appreciate that you paid the bills. Do you think you could enter all of the transactions in the register so I can find them when I balance the checkbook? I really appreciate that you handle the task of paying the bills.” Remember, we are being kind no matter what we are saying or doing, and if we correct someone out of our own frustration with general frustration, they probably won’t benefit, which means no change.

4. Don’t make it personal. Stick to the facts of what bothers you. Because they have a different opinion doesn’t mean they are wrong. Because they do things a different way doesn’t mean they are a bad person.

What about when you are on the receiving end?

1. Don’t take it personally. People often criticize or put down others when they are having a bad day. Be careful to not internalize the words spoken (even if they choose to pick at you instead of your actions). Listen for the specifics mentioned about what you could do differently, not about you as a person.

2. Chew on it. Yep, regardless of which end you find yourself, it’s good to chew. In chewing over their words, you might be a little less defensive. The more we chew our food, the better we’ll digest it, and the same is true of the words we chew.

3. Be grateful. Realizing that well-meaning suggestions will help us become the better cook, ball player, or CEO we hope to become, can leave us with gratitude. Be grateful someone is willing to be honest and helpful. We all benefit.

It might be more pleasant to be told how wonderful we are, but in sharing positive, specific feedback, everyone can make real progress. Speak and listen with kindness and honesty, knowing that it truly is better to be saved with constructive criticism than ruined with empty praise. 

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.

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