Is there such a thing as constructive criticism? Not really? Criticism seems more like a punch in the stomach than a helpful hint. Complaints are a different animal altogether. The major difference between a criticism and a complaint is that a criticism is a personal attack and a complaint is about who we are. Criticism creates defensiveness. How could it be otherwise? Defensiveness is a knee jerk response to criticism; it’s payback. A complaint, on the other hand, aspires to loftier goals; it’s about your inner world.
In my work I have to say things to people that are really hard to hear. I must provide insights without judgment or criticism. Otherwise, they are up and out the door, never to be seen again. Criticism is always about the past but complaints can be about the future. “You did the wrong thing” as opposed to “This is what I want moving forward.” Whenever you express your complaint as a wish, need or a want, you are creating the possibility of a positive outcome. Criticism is always negative, whereas a complaint can be quite positive. Complaints give your partner something to do, whereas a criticism paints them into a corner. They are bad and there is no way out. A proper complaint is an exit strategy.
John Gottman, the author of The Seven Principles for A Happy Marriage interviewed over 12,000 couples. He describes the “four horsemen” of a failed marriage as criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Highly critical couples are doomed to failure because criticism is a disconnect and ultimately a shut down.
The difference between a criticism and a complaint might look like:
- Criticism: “If you could ever think of anyone besides yourself, you would know that I needed your help today. You bailed and left me holding the bag.”
- Complaint: “Next time we have a function in our home, could we sit down and plan, so we are on the same team? I need your help.”
- Criticism: “Are you so selfish that you can’t even remember my birthday? You can’t get anything right.”
- Complaint: “I know how busy you are, but it really would mean a lot to me if next year on my birthday we worked out a plan so we could celebrate. It would mean the world to me.”
Criticism and complaints have one thing in common – they both relate to differences between people. Differences create conflict which is natural and unavoidable. Differences can be about lifestyle, culture, past experiences, morals and values. It’s not that we will never get angry or have conflicts, it’s about how we handle them.