from the


from the Top of the Mind


from the
Top of the Mind

“Dr. Crawford’s presentation was the highlight of the conference and a much needed reminder for all of us (especially nurses) to keep it all balanced. Bill’s psychology background surely protruded through his messages and I know it was well-received by all!”

Nancy Perovic, RN, BSN
University Of Chicago Hospitals, Chicago, IL

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“Criticism can be effective when there is something that must be destroyed or dissolved, but it is capable only of harm when there is something to be built.”

~ Adapted from Carl Jung

The Problem with Constructive Criticism

Most leaders (parents, supervisors, teachers, managers, etc.) often speak to their frustration with others who can’t take constructive criticism. They describe how those they are trying to help seem to react by becoming defensive, argumentative, sullen, or downright angry when being told what they are doing wrong, or how they need to improve.

In order to understand this issue and become more effective, I suggest that we look more closely at the problem, which in this case, means looking more closely at the word “criticism.” The root word here, of course, is critic and/or critical, which the dictionary describes as belittling, biting, condemning, cutting, cynical, demanding, demeaning, derogatory, disapproving, disparaging, fussy, hairsplitting, humbling, lowering, nagging, nit-picking, reproachful, sarcastic, scolding, severe, sharp, trenchant, and withering.

Hmmmm… Now, I’m sure most people who are in the position of giving feedback to others don’t mean it this way. However, when those we are trying to help or teach react negatively to our constructive criticism, I’m guessing that this is how it is being perceived.

Those who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy, know why this is so. The part of our brain that receives data first (the middle brain or limbic system) is hypersensitive to anything negative, and tends to engage the lower brain (the brainstem) whenever we hear anything that is critical. Of course, when people are confident in their own worth and value, this tendency can be overridden by the upper 80% of the brain (the neocortex, what I call the “Top of the Mind). However, sadly, many people grow up doubting their own self-worth or needing to be approved of by others to feel worthy, and, thus, are likely to hear what is meant as “constructive” as merely “critical.”

This was recognized long ago by Carl Jung who wrote: “Criticism can be effective when there is something that must be destroyed or dissolved, but it is capable only of harm when there is something to be built.”

This means that it’s possible that the term “constructive criticism” is actually an oxymoron.

Therefore, if you or those in your organization or family are in the position of teaching or helping others improve, I suggest we become aware of what is working and what isn’t. In other words, if our efforts at helping are being heard as critical, I suggest we shift from giving constructive criticism to valuable feedback.

The key word here is “valuable,” and is defined not only by what we think is valuable, but whether the person we are talking to hears our suggestions on improvement as valuable. Of course, this is easier said than done, and in my opinion requires at least a cursory understanding of how the brain processes information.

That is, we must know when someone is in the “resistant brain,” and how to engage them (talk to them) in such a way that they shift to the “receptive brain” so that they truly hear what we have to say as valuable.

If you would like to learn this skill in order to help those in your family and/or organization improve, I suggest that you contact me, because until we learn how to help others in a way that builds on their strengths and supports their confidence (versus trying to stop their negative behavior), chances are our efforts will be more destructive than constructive.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill

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