Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a coach, a manager, a teammate or a friend, you’ve had many opportunities to provide feedback on someone else’s work. Though this is something we must all do in life, it is not something that is easy. A keen awareness of the person we’re talking to goes a long way. So does paying attention to how our remarks are received. With awareness and kindness, we can learn the art of constructive criticism.
And it is an art. We learn to balance negative remarks with positive ones. We learn linguistic tricks – “If it were me, I’d do it this way,” “Have you thought about it from this perspective?” or “It might help if you try this …” We learn to manage our tone of voice and facial expressions so that what we’re saying looks and sounds as compassionate and helpful as we intend it to be. In short, it’s possible to get pretty good at suggesting ways that others can improve.
But we often forget that sometimes it’s not criticism or suggestions for improvement that are needed. Sometimes, it’s more powerful to find something to celebrate in someone else’s work.
I can hear you now. “How will my employee ever learn if I don’t tell him what he did wrong?” “Won’t my teammate get complacent and stop trying to improve if all I do is compliment her?” “Isn’t it gratuitous praise that is systematically destroying the grit of our children?”
These are good questions. I’m not suggesting praise where it’s not deserved or compliments instead of warranted criticism. To do so, would absolutely have the effects that concern you. What I am suggesting is that there are times – many more than we expect – when a word of praise, a sincere compliment or a moment to celebrate a job well done will do more to inspire someone to growth and improvement than any criticism – no matter how artful or how constructive – ever could.
If you’re worried that substituting praise for important feedback will damage the future of your team, or your business or (gasp!) your child, you might consider experimenting on yourself. After all, if you’re a normal human being, there is no doubt that you are harder on yourself than you would ever be on someone else. Therefore, you deserve a little T.L.C. To make this even less threatening, you can try it within the safe confines of your yoga mat as you practice.
I tried it earlier this week, actually. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, as I was moving through a series of postures that I’m still very much figuring out. In other words, I wasn’t practicing postures that are easy for me or that I do particularly well. Because of this, it took some serious willpower to tune out the voice of my inner critic. That voice has a lot to say as I move through this series. Sometimes it offers helpful suggestions – “Try shifting your gaze.” Sometimes it is encouraging – “Go on, try it again.” And sometimes it is downright harsh – “Well that totally rotted. Is that the best you’ve got?”
Because my inner critic is so well-established, for this experiment I quickly discovered that I was going to need to tune her out entirely if I wanted to find something to celebrate within my practice. I was not going to be able to focus on what went reasonably well or mostly right if I allowed my critic any space at all. So instead of working extra hard to get better at this series, I chose instead to simply flow through the postures as best I could, keeping an eye peeled for moments when I could pat myself on the back.
For the first half-hour it took everything I had to resist the urge to seek improvement. I eventually slipped into a focused state where my mind quieted and settled into the pulse of my breath and movements. I actually forgot to keep an eye out for something to praise. In a shocking twist, it was in a posture that regularly eludes me and often requires many tries for me to find even a hint of success that my moment of celebration showed up. If I’d been feeling slightly snarky, I could have celebrated the fact that I was on attempt number five and had yet to slip into constructive (OK, destructive) criticism mode. But my head was deeply in the game and I simply tried the posture one more time.
I nailed it. Mind you, I didn’t hold it for the ten breaths I typically require of myself. I lost my balance and had to come down after only three. But before I even thought about trying again so I could hold it longer, I thought, “Well done! You did it! That was great!” I took a breath and let that feedback wash over me. Not only did it feel good to pat myself on the back, but I was surprised to find that I agreed with my own assessment. It was great. I had done it. And celebrating felt good. Celebrating gave me a proverbial spring in my step and left a smile on my face as I moved through the rest of my practice. As I laid back into savasana, I wasn’t even sure if it had been a particularly good (as in adept) practice. What I knew with deep certainty was that I felt good.
Better yet, I found that I was enthusiastically looking forward to trying that challenging posture again the next day. That kind of eager motivation is exactly the result you can get if take a moment to celebrate someone’s work without an ounce of criticism or suggestion. Taking a moment to bask in the glow of a good effort – your employee’s, your teammate’s, your child’s or even your own – can be powerfully inspiring.
Go ahead! Give it a try.