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Archive for December 10th, 2009

Offering criticism is apparently just too delicious to resist.

In all walks of life, people invest inordinate amounts of time in inspecting gaps in confidence, competence, effectiveness, caring, morality (especially that), and intelligence of others, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. This is the psychology of “but:” I liked your work, but …….,” and all the parallel variations on the theme. Criticism, we reason, is all about giving honest feedback, ostensibly, so people can get better.

In an age of being more politically correct and a need to at least come across as more compassionate, the term “constructive criticism” entered the lexicon. Just how constructive is it most of the time in fact?

Critics are ubiquitous. We have our movie critics who tell us if a film is a star or a dog, our pundits, sizing up where our political leaders are failing, our art critics who opine about aesthetic quality, meaningfulness, and uniqueness (and, of course, dollar value), music critics, theater critics, book critics, on and on.

It seems every one has advice to offer and a critique to publish, and, I confess, I read them and listen to them. I check out the ratings given by newspaper movie critics in deciding which I take in, and the Zagat ratings for the restaurants I visit. Honestly, sometimes I agree and, many times, I have a different experience. Often, critics have an axe to grind, and a public persona to project. At the end of the day, the critic is offering a subjective, personal perception.

I find myself welcoming more the critique of masters who themselves create, than from those who offer criticism as a bona fide career path. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that criticism fills the greatest percentage of what gets said on the airways and gets written in the press, and exchanged in conversation.

What impresses me about all the criticism is the motivation that lies behind it. The logic is peculiar: talking about what’s wrong to make something better or right. The frame is intrinsically negative. It’s an analysis designed to flag error, being off the mark, falling short of the target, or ideal, and throwing the spotlights on the gaps.

There is an alternative; one less appealing to many leaders because it seems to lack the incisiveness and the seemingly stronger direct statements of what’s not the way it should be. It is appreciative inquiry ( AI), and it is used by a growing number (though still a minority) of leaders in their partnerships with people.

AI is a positive framing of the performance dialogue. Instead of what’s missing, it honors what’s there. For example, in looking at an individual’s performance, the question is: So, what has worked in the past, or is working now, that can help address a challenge with which we’re struggling? In talking about strengths and weaknesses, it invites a response to what has been done well, and how it typifies what would be best pursued in tackling the new or ongoing and, yet unresolved, challenge.

In thinking about an organization’s future state, and changes that create value, analyzing what the organization values, has made a big difference in the past, and has a proven track-record of delivering on results, puts us in a position to cast forward with an appreciative look at the past, while envisioning new possibilities.

AI applies in all arenas where criticism is swift in coming: What do we appreciate in a work  we are considering from which we’ve derived real satisfaction, pleasure, and benefit. What do those positive features suggest about ways to make it even more compelling?

The motive force behind this approach is to build authentically on excellence, initiative, creativity, genius, and commitment, and not the disingenuous character of so much that is spun as “constructive criticism” that is often the critic’s thinly veiled self-aggrandizement at the expense of the work, character, or decisions of another.

This is spiritual practice. In the intense round of our daily activities, this is a concrete and practical way to realize the ideas of “right speech and right action.” It is engaged spirituality and makes a palpable difference every day in our own lives, and in the lives of those affected by what we say and how we say it.

This is more than right language. It is right thinking. It is spiritual learning to examine the deep motivations, and the shadow-play, that may be operating behind our critiques and commentary. Moving to “and” rather than “but,” and to what’s right in informing what we do next, is a more truly constructive mindset to adopt.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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