Monday, January 28, 2013

Constructive Criticism: How to Ask For, Give, and Receive It

Most of us want and welcome helpful, informative, and supportive feedback.  It helps us to develop our skills, modify our behavior for the better, and to expand our outlook on things.  In short, it helps us grow.

We are talking about constructive criticism.  But few of us actually seem to know how to ask for it, let alone give or receive it well.  Is there a secret?  No, there’s no secret.  But there are some simple principles to follow when giving, receiving, or asking for constructive criticism.

1.    First, positive feedback has the interest of the person in mind.

The real intent of constructive criticism is to build up, not to tear down.  For example, most of us want feedback when we are learning something new, as in taking on a new position, role, office, or set of responsibilities.  It reflects our desire to grow and to do well.

We have blind spots and we know this.  We are also aware of the fact that there are those who know more than we do, or have a better perspective than we do, and can therefore provide us with insightful and constructive feedback.  If they are willing to give it, we need to be willing to ask for it—in the interest of all concerned.

2.    And, about asking for it: constructive criticism is solicited not presumptuously given.

Okay, bosses, employers, managers, people in authority over you, yes, they have a right to give unsolicited feedback to those under their watch.  It shows that they are on top of things and that they care.  That is, if the feedback is positively and constructively appropriate.  For they could just as well sit back and watch you fail without offering a word of advice—to your detriment.

But fellow workers and colleagues, or those below you in the pecking order of things, generally do not volunteer advice or feedback unless it’s asked for; otherwise they may seem arrogant and presumptuous.

You do well to invite their feedback.  Never be afraid to solicit honest feedback from your equals or from your so-called “inferiors.”  They may just give you the most useful feedback you need.  Learn to be inviting and teachable and model openness and humility in engaging others.

3.    Constructive criticism is descriptive, not evaluative.

Evaluative feedback is judgmental: “You’re inefficient and sloppy.”

Descriptive criticism speaks to the action: “You overlooked the second step in a three step series.  This is why the outcome was less than adequate.  Follow all three steps completely and you will have much better results.”

Constructive feedback does not critique the person it critiques the work.  There is no accusatory judgment in descriptive critique.  It’s a simple matter of staying professional and not getting personal.

4.    Helpful criticism is concrete and specific.

Too general: “You did well; if you tweak some things it will even be better the next time.”  This critique offers no constructive elements.  One might ask, “How well or tweak what exactly”?

Nicely and constructively specific: “Your presentation caught most people’s attention; next time, try using more images, add more color, and use larger print, and I’m sure you will dazzle them.”  This critique is quite specifically helpful, offering concrete ideas for improvement.

5.    That is to say that constructive feedback addresses matters that can actually be changed, modified, corrected, or improved.

None of us can change our ancestral heritage, our height, or the color of our eyes, etc. But we all can change specific behavior, habits, sentiments and/or attitudes.

However, before offering advice for making personal changes, you should probably ask yourself how receptive you’d be if you were being asked to make the same kind of changes in your own personal habits, perspective, way of doing things, or attitude.  In other words, always be sensitive, respectful, and considerate, allowing them to "take it or leave it," especially when treading on personal territory like attitudes and habits.

6.    Build a culture of positive and constructive feedback.

Feedback is best received in a context where constructive criticism is expected and welcomed as a regular and understood form of learning and encouragement.

Everyone involved should learn how to use full circle or two-way communication skills to insure that the feedback is properly understood:

“Does what I say, make sense” or “Did I explain myself well?” or “How did you understand my meaning?” are questions that invite full circle communication where the speaker is able to verify that his/her intended meaning was properly understood by the listener.

The mirroring technique is an excellent tool here, where the listener repeats back, in his/her own words, what he/she thinks the speaker has said.

In conclusion: There is no magic, no secret to giving or receiving or asking for constructive feedback.  But it does take mental and emotional energy, a willing spirit, and some good communication skills.  Hearing, receiving, and accepting other people’s insights, perspectives, knowledge and know-how, is how we grow and develop.  Welcoming and inviting solid, positive and constructive feedback is all part of the journey in our personal and professional development.  Go for it, and grow.

Monday, January 21, 2013

NRA, Why So Reactionary?

According to the NRA, the president is a hypocritical elitist who is looking after his own children while not caring for the children of America.  Have you seen the video: “NRA Stand and Fight – President Barack Obama… blah, blah, blah”?

I have to ask: Why such hostility?

The White House called the video repugnant.  I call it appalling.  Instead of rationally discussing the issue, the NRA has simply resorted to demagoguery (demagogue = a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people).

I have no personal vendetta against the NRA.  Sportsmen, gun hobbyists, gun collectors, and gun lovers of all types have a right to meet collectively and to belong to organizations such as the NRA to promote the knowledge and skillful use of guns and gun ownership.

If you like guns, go for it.  Have at it.  Enjoy yourself.  But why be so trigger happy, pointedly aiming and firing at anyone raising concerns, daring to suggest, for the sake of protecting our communities, that wiser and more measured and perhaps stricter safety-regulations, respecting the purchase and distribution of fire arms—especially military type assault weapons—need further consideration?

Does the NRA really believe that the second amendment to our United States Constitution is on the brink of being overthrown?  If so, that’s simply irrational.  There is no real and substantial threat to the second amendment.  After all, it is the second amendment.  First of all, the constitution cannot be changed so easily.  Secondly, the right to bear arms is far too sacred in our American psyche, for it to be casually dropped, lost, or otherwise discarded.  So why does the NRA feel so threatened in behalf of the second amendment?  So much so, that it goes into hyper-reaction whenever any discussion about gun laws, gun control, and gun safety comes to the forefront in the American political scene.

The NRA has a proposal for making our communities safer.  Their proposed solution: place armed security guards within our schools.  But, instead of offering this idea as a talking point for further consideration by the general public—to discuss and decide on its own, whether or not it’s a good idea, bad idea, or an idea that needs improvement—they make it a battle cry, as if it’s the only proposal that all politicians and any solidly patriotic American should back.

I just don’t buy their idea.  I personally think it’s a bad one.  We are long past the days of gun-slinging cowboys walking around town with their gun holsters on their hips ready to draw and fire their six-shooters at the drop of a dime.  I should think that, as a nation and a people, we have matured beyond that stage in our history.

That being said, should I therefore be targeted by the NRA as one of its enemies?  I hope not.  I’m not anti-NRA.  I just disagree with their proposed solution and I wonder at their hyper-defensiveness.  I simply don’t think that, what I would call, militarizing our schools with armed security, is the answer.  I do not believe that such a policy would make our schools or communities any safer.  That’s all.

Yet, I say this, wondering why the NRA feels so threatened by the likes of me or others who disagree with them?  No one is talking about taking away all guns from all people and trashing the second amendment.  So why is the NRA so reactionary, so extremist, and so unwilling to allow common sense, measured and balanced safety regulatory proposals to be placed on the table with respect to gun control?  What are they so afraid of?  After all, they’re the ones with the guns.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Is Israel a Sacred State? We Need Wisdom not Religious Fervor

Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has riled some.  Why?  One major criticism is that Hagel is not supportive enough of Israel and, by extension, neither is Obama.  It is interesting how even the most modest and constructive criticism of our country’s policy with the state of Israel is seen as a betrayal to our commitment to Israel’s welfare.

It reminds me of our country’s attitude, during W. Bush’s first administration, soon after 9/11.  Anyone who dared to suggest that we ought not to extend the war into Iraq was accused of being un-American, un-patriotic, weak, and subversive, a turncoat, and worse.  We seldom leave room for balanced, measured, and reflective thinking on national and international issues.  And our reaction to statements questioning our policies with Israel is a good example of this.

Many Evangelical Christians give whole-hearted, and I might add, unquestioning support to Israel for prophetic, theological, and eschatological reasons (time to get out your dictionary).  Is this right?  Is this what God expects of us?  Can Israel do no wrong?

Actually, what’s just as bad, if not worse, is that many Evangelical Christians act as if America itself is God’s chosen nation.  I observe a subtle but strong intermingling, a marriage if you will, between the Evangelical church and American patriotism—which seems to assume that God has especially set apart this nation as uniquely favored, above all other nations—perhaps as a means of fulfilling Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel and its people, the real Chosen People.

Thus, idealism, faith, theology, religious fervor, and nationalism all co-mingle together to make one strong, unyielding, narrowly focused, unbending, and unquestioning stance for Israel.  Right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish, we will stand with, for, behind, and in support of Israel, no matter what, no criticism allowed!

I support Israel.  I am for Israel. I believe Israel has a right and a place in the world’s national and international scene—despite certain Middle Eastern cries that Israel should be annihilated.  But I do not believe that my support for Israel should be blind, unquestioning, and imbalanced.  Other nations and other people also count in the Middle East (as for example, Christian Palestinians). 

Our American policy in the Middle East must not treat Israel as a Sacred Cow (or Golden Calf).  As if our support for Israel should never be measured or qualified.  We must be tempered.  We need not always doubt, scold, demean, or denounce those who dare to bring some balance to our attitude and our actions in our support of Israel.

Wisdom always sees things with balance: measured, thoughtful, and with critique.  And more than anything else, respecting our policies in the Middle East, we need a good dosage of wisdom.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fie on Goodness Fie! Why?

Fortitude, Fealty, Rectitude, Virtue, Veracity, these are old words, classic words, righteous words, words we seldom if ever use or embrace these days.  No, it’s worse than that.  These are words that we not only, no longer use, but positively dislike, which says something about our mindset and our state of being.

Fortitude refers to standing firm in the face of adversity or danger.  It is having mental and emotional courage, a positive and determined stick-to-itiveness, a neither give-up nor give-in mentality--choosing to do the more difficult (right) thing, rather than the easier (wrong) thing.  This is the opposite of having a whiny, woe is me/why me, response to adversity, which often expects others to bail us out of trouble--that is more than likely self-created.

Fealty refers to fidelity, which in turn refers to staying true and loyal to one’s obligations and commitments, especially as it relates to another person.  It is being faithful.  Notice how we so easily discard our commitments to one another these days.  It is becoming more and more difficult to find someone who values relationships, expecting long lasting intentional and trustworthy loyalty and faithfulness.  Think of fidelity not only in family and marriage, but also within friendships, business and social relationships, and within the community in general.

Rectitude has to do with living, acting, or behaving in ways that line up with rightness of principle.  It is conduct that has integrity.  Virtue refers to having moral excellence, being good, conforming to ethical and moral principles.  Veracity refers to speaking truly, honesty of speech and statement.  Speaking the truth as one understands and knows it, rather than to prevaricate, which is to deliberately misstate with an intent to mislead.

These words elicit nothing more than ridicule these days.  Comedians have a field-day with celebrities that dare to speak seriously about intentionally living as a man or woman of virtue, rectitude, and veracity.  Oh how we laugh at those who aspire to such heights of character.  “Prim and proper, puritanical, pietistic prudishness,” we derisively say with scorn and derision.  It would seem that today’s motto is, Fie on goodness fie!

Why?  Why do we sneer at goodness?  What is so offensive about virtue?  What is so wrong with piety, desiring to be true and honest, loyal and faithful, moral and good?

One reason perhaps is that we resent others who appear to be our moral betters.  We’re well aware of our own moral failings.  So we don’t like others that are overly good, compared to us.  It not only makes us look bad, it makes us feel bad.  We don’t like feeling guilty.  And we most certainly do not like others making us look bad.

Another reason perhaps is that one person’s idea of goodness is another person’s idea of chains and shackles, that is, the enslavement of one’s freewill.  We can’t seem to agree on right and wrong these days.  So who is to say that I am being immoral or less than good—my idea of right and wrong may be quite different than yours.  The whole abortion controversy, not to mention the debate on legalizing gay marriage, is an example of this problem, par-excellence!

A third reason, especially as it relates to truth, veracity and fidelity, is that dishonesty and deceitfulness works for us.  We may say that we prefer the truth at all times.  But the way we function in our day to day lives reveals that we are actually afraid of the truth.  We prefer to use half-truths and little white lies, sometime outright lies, to help us get out of touchy and uncomfortable situations.  What this behavior says is that telling a lie is more useful to us, makes things more manageable, than telling the actual truth.

Likewise, we tend to shun courage and fortitude because it takes too much out of us to be courageous and to actually do the right thing.  Perhaps also it is because we get more care and attention from others when we plead fear and weakness rather than embrace strength and fortitude.  At bottom, it is an attempt to escape direct responsibility for our actions and to avoid our call to duty, our moral obligations -- two other words we definitely seem to dislike today.

I suppose, if there is no final and ultimate accountability, our attitude respecting goodness and virtue matters very little.  But if there is—a final accounting we shall give for our lives—it matters a great deal.