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Is Criticism Ever Constructive?

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Is Criticism Ever Constructive?

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.

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Dr. Bill Cloke

Dr. Bill Cloke has worked with individuals and couples for 30 years. He received a masterís degree in education from the University of Southern California and holds a PhD in psychology from California Graduate Institute. A frequent talk-radio and TV psychologist, he is also a contributor to and other popular websites and has lectured at UCLA. Bill Cloke lives with his wife in Los Angeles. To learn more about Bill Cloke, and for more resources on creating healthy, happy relationships, visit


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10:22AM PDT on Apr 22, 2013


11:29AM PDT on Sep 1, 2012

nice way of making distinction between criticism and complaint

5:05PM PDT on Apr 13, 2012

"Otherwise, they are up and out the door, never to be seen again."

So, you're saying you'd lose you source of livelihood? Best to be real careful.

9:53PM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

Absolute cardinal rule in any business environment is to praise publicly, give constructive critisism in private and have solid evidence supporting the reason for the critique and why its not acceptable, and what will happen it the behavior doesn't change, be firm, be clear, no judgements or attitudes involved.

1:28AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

Some people enjoy raising their voices and behave as if the person with the loudest voice is always right. Cultures certainly differ......

1:29PM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

excellent advice, my partner and i have been doing this subconsciencously thoughout our relationships and as a result our fights are actually disagreements and we get over them fast

1:03PM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

From my experience, Criticism, and I won’t mention names, (in case the rude and disrespectful person/s is reading this) I don’t like certain people to even give me constructive criticism because he/she did it in a way to make me look small, stupid, ignorant, and they got glory out of putting someone down in front of other people, to make me look and feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. . I could have knocked the shit out of those people because it truly pisses me off when people do this to gain attention, to make themselves look smarter, or bigger. Now, the person who is excellent at this crap is getting hit with the same treatment from others. Payback is a b*tch. Criticism, it truly depends how you present it when correcting someone. My advice, don’t do it in front of others. Pull that person to the side and correct them if you must. You don’t win brownie points by being an ass to your co-workers.

8:27AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

I agree with others in the comments section that the semantics of criticism and complaining is a little problematic in this post. I would also say that the marriage relationship is quite different from relations with coworkers, also. I think we learn a lot of our coping behaviors from our parents. I remember my parents would do that stonewalling and I hated to see them do it, so I swore I wouldn't. But, there's always challenges in any relationship and I think the biggest one in mine is that of both parties wanting to work on them.

5:57AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

Excellent article.

5:14AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

Instructive criticism where you do it and show them rather than explain it, is quicker when at work.

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