Brett turned around to find his friend Marty with a big grin on his face. “What?” he asked.
Marty’s grin got bigger and his eyebrows jumped into his hairline. “You dress all sloppy, man. I thought you were wearing the janitor’s dustrags.” Marty laughed and walked off, while the other kids around Brett laughed.
Brett stared after Marty. He was so angry, he wanted to run after him and hit him right then.
Is It Valid?
Criticism can either be destructive or constructive. Destructive is just that–it is meant to knock you down. Constructive criticism is supportive and meant to help improve a situation.
Anger is a typical response to destructive criticism. Marty was Brett’s friend, but for some reason on that day he decided to embarrass him. Criticizing his clothes in front of everyone accomplished that. Brett decked a fight wasn’t worth it. He could get benched during the ballgame or get kicked out of school. Or both. So instead, he sat in class and thought about it. He didn’t know why Marty had criticized him. He didn’t dress like a slob–he dressed like everyone else. And Marty had a jacket just like the one he was wearing.
Taking it, But Not Liking It
When someone levels an attack of criticism, there are two ways that people react. Larry Wall, a counselor at Michigan Technical University, has worked with teens for years and has a special interest in conflict resolution, including dealing with criticism. He says that people react either by “lying down and playing dead” or by overreacting in loud, angry ways.
For Megan, it depends on who is doing criticizing. “When someone criticizes me, defensive shields immediately go up.” She says that if it comes from someone she doesn’t know well, she adopts an “I don’t care” attitude. But if it comes from a close friend, “I think about it a lot later.” She then decides whether she feels she should change whatever the criticism was about.
Wall has tips for what to do when a criticizer has you in his or her sights. “One of the first things I try to do is teach people how to relax when criticism occurs. The first thing that happens is that they immediately get into this defensive fighter-like reaction and they’re immediately very angry, or they’re scared or embarrassed. That strong emotion will shut down any kind of thinking they’re going to do.”
The first thing to do is to physically relax. Your next step is to be casual and to even be somewhat playful. When Marty leveled his attack on Brett, Brett could have responded with a technique called fogging. Wall says that means agreeing with the criticism instead of becoming defensive, angry or intimidated. “The person might turn around and respond by saying, `You know, I can see where you see that.’ Do it with playful tone in your voice. Part of the technique is just staying relaxed in the face of criticism.” Wall says that in fogging you ask for more details and give your own self-disclosure: “What do you mean I dress all sloppy? I thought I did pretty well.”
What It’s Really About
When someone like Marty criticized you, you can think about it and decide if it is a valid criticism and if you need to change your behaviour. But sometimes a criticism isn’t what you think.
Wall says there might be an issue underneath, and that the criticizer is really angry about something else. When you ask for more details, you sometimes can learn what real issue is. But do it in private. Then ask, “Did you really mean that criticism, or are you really angry about something else that you want to talk about?”
Brett later found Marty walking home from school. He asked Marty about his comment in the hall. Marty shrugged. “I thought it would be fun to dis you.”
Brett looked at Marty. “Friends don’t dis friends.”
Marty pushed his hands into his pockets. “They do when they see their friend putting the moves on the girl they like.”
So there it was. When Brett explained that he didn’t know that Marty liked Amanda, and that he was only talking to her about the math assignment, Marty apologized for the hallway scene.
Teens often criticize each other without thinking about the consequences. Wall says, “Kids have gotten the idea from television that personal insulting is cool. That might be cool to watch on television–it’s entertaining, but it’s not real life. If you try that in real life, real people have real feelings that really get hurt.”
Giving It Out
There are times when criticism is needed. But how do you go about giving it without it sounding like you’re attacking another person?
Wall says to start out with some kind of positive statement about your relationship. Suppose Selena and Lee Ann have a science project to work on, but Lee Ann has been too busy with her boyfriend to work on it. Selena could jump all over Lee Ann with nasty comments. But instead, she might say, “Hey, Lee Ann, we’ve been friends a long time and we always have fun together. But lately I’m kind of irritated that you’re not working on this project with me.”
Wall says when you tell the person that you like her, she won’t feel as if she is being attacked. He says to concentrate on the behavior and not the person.
“Then I would get very specific and operational,” says Wall. Selena can remind Lee Ann that she has asked her twice to get together and Selena had other things to do. Now Selena needs to tell Lee Ann what she wants: “I want to get an A on this project, and I need you to carry your half of the load.”
It can be difficult to learn how to come up with constructive criticism. Larry Wall says it takes practice, and that it is really part of social skills training. Some schools teach social skills. If yours doesn’t, ask your parents for help, or search in the library or on the Internet for information. Check out how you would respond to the situations at the right.