Opening the oversized white envelope, I eagerly scanned my assignment. Along the margins, notes in bold blue handwriting told me that my sketch was well-written, the details were good, and my character was true to life.
I frowned: There was no constructive criticism.
True, high school had given me some descriptive skills, and a great deal of grammar. But the process of taking my writing from paper-doll flat to three-dimensional life was only just beginning. How was I to continue without specific, practical suggestions?
* * *
She warned me.
It was one of my first articles for publication, and I had just asked Karen, an author-friend, to have a look at it. She replied whimsically, “The honor is all mine if you would like my shredding … uh, editing skills.”
Within a few days, the annotated manuscript arrived in my inbox.
I had written of tiny, pert sparrows. “Do unpert sparrows exist?” she wanted to know.
I scrapped the useless word.
A few sentences were too perky. Others had too many adjectives. “Use your descriptive powers with caution,” she warned. “Too much ‘color’ overwhelms and could be taken for showing off.”
Ouch. Still, she hadn’t assigned motives to me — just predicted likely results.
I trimmed out some adjectives.
Karen did her job well. She began with praise, she ended with an invitation to tea — and thanks to her, it was a leaner article with a deeper, richer (less perky) ending.
I still pack nearly every article off to a few candid friends. I trust their eagle eyes to keep me from stumbling into theological, factual, or grammatical heresy. And after that, I trust my editor to protest if my writing still fails to do its job.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Solomon said, “and one man sharpens another.” In the writing world, criticism is vitally important to success. It’s also a mutual sign of respect. By soliciting feedback, the writer says, “I trust you. I know you’ll be forceful, but not destructive; you’ll polish my writing without eradicating my personality.” And by accepting the challenge, the editor replies, “Your work is worth a serious investment of my time and talent.”
But mine isn’t the only calling to include an element of evaluation.
* * *
While training as a Christian counselor, Clyde learned that “often in intense one-on-one sessions, you can become so engrossed in the plan of action that you forget to ask some important questions, or can’t see as clearly where you are headed with the client.” An observer provides new perspective. “Others around me can see what I can’t,” Clyde says. “Without constructive criticism, I would never be aware of those areas in my life in need of change or growth — nor would my counseling of others dealing with that same issue be effective.”
During her army service, Hanna discovered that sometimes what her commanders wanted to correct was not her behavior, but her lack of confidence. “I don’t know why you’re freaking out,” they would say. “You’re good and you can do this. I know it and I’ve seen it.”
Most of the criticism Hanna received during her training as a scuba diver was to save her life. In such a dangerous environment, that was easy to understand. But in everyday situations, criticism can be difficult to accept. Recently, she writes, “my dad quietly said he liked a song I wrote better the first way I wrote it. So did my mom.” Hanna recognized that they were right: Her pride had kept her “improvising it into something complicated that was harder to use as a worship song.”
Not that all criticism is created equal! “It’s like walking through a store,” Hanna says. “They would like me to take everything, but it doesn’t mean I need everything or that it all fits. When it makes you lose confidence and perspective, and it doesn’t help, it isn’t really that constructive.” But God “encourages and builds up. Being so loved for no good reason on my part already makes me want to be a better me.”
As a piano and voice teacher, Anna figures, “Some of what I’m getting paid to do is help students identify their weaknesses and to work through them, sometimes turning them into strengths as a result. I do this through a balance of constructive criticism, encouragement and goal setting. I think it’s very important to have the student first say what it is he or she would like to accomplish and then determine the means to get there. That way, the student can know that this is for his or her benefit.”
Paul is a used car salesman, a husband, a father, and a pastor. He realizes that naturally speaking, we define positive feedback as something we like, and negative feedback as something we don’t like.
But isn’t positive feedback anything that shows us how well we are fulfilling our intentions? If your intent is to create a good meal, you need to know that your guests didn’t enjoy that much salt. If your intent is to love your children, you need to know if they don’t feel that love.
Probably the hardest feedback Paul has ever heard came from his grown daughter. Teary-eyed, she told him, “Dad, you’re scary.”
He could easily have replied, “What are you talking about? Name one time I was scary.” Instead, he decided, “I don’t want to be scary to my children. Even if I’m only a 2 on the scariness scale, I don’t want even that.” Then he realized what a compliment his daughter was paying him: She saw that he had gotten to the place where he could hear her criticism without falling apart. When he began to apologize, she replied, “Let’s just go on from here.” Today, their relationship is even stronger than before.
Paul realizes that “what people say isn’t necessarily Truth with a capital T.” But his desire, as the recipient of feedback, is to have a welcome sign on his forehead that says, “I want to hear; I want to know what kind of impact I’m having. I don’t want to stop growing.”
Decades ago, Philip was involved in developing the telecommunications network now used for telephones and the internet. It was a rigorous process, demanding severe criticism among its team of creative thinkers. “There was nothing personal or political in the criticism,” he says. “We were too busy and moving too fast to be concerned about petty matters. The same was true in building my company. I am sure it is true of most successful start ups. Every good work is tested in the fire. The fact that it works eventually silences the criticism.”
Callie received frequent project assessments in architectural design school. “With our regular professor and classmates,” she says, “it was always easier to be vulnerable about what was going on with my work. I knew they were aware of how hard I had been working and they would honor that even as they pointed out my weaknesses. If I hadn’t been working hard enough, they’d let me know! Since I was accountable to them it was a welcomed kick in the rear to stay on track.”
In comparison, criticism from faculty or professionals whom she didn’t know felt almost harsh. “I had to learn to distance myself from my work and assess it more objectively, as well as being able to articulate the vital points concisely and professionally for someone who had not followed my process. This is the greatest difference between a first year design student and a senior or graduate student: accepting criticism graciously without defense. It takes a great deal of confidence, humility, and maturity to get to that point.”
Callie’s time in design school now influences her interactions with friends and family. She values having others speak into her life, but when she sees a problem in someone else, she stops. And thinks. “Because I’m aware that criticism feels different from my classmates than it does from a guest critic, I try to ask myself if I have the appropriate relationship with someone to offer criticism in any area of their life.”
And in the end, criticism is all about relationship: my relationship with God.
The Bible has a lot to say about the giving and receiving of feedback, which it often calls correction or reproof. Biblically, a bad response to feedback includes regarding it lightly, being weary of it, or even hating it — as well as the person who gives it. In effect, this attitude says, “I need nothing.” Not a good idea if I’m talking to the One who knows everything about me.
A good response to feedback means I listen, consider, and actively repent: actions stemming from love for the reprover and confidence in his skill and intent. This attitude sees correction as life-giving, a blessing, and even a sign of God’s delight in me as His child.
* * *
In just a few things, my dad and I don’t quite see eye-to-eye. Things like Tabasco sauce (he’s for; I’m against) and Jane Austen (I see her keen eye for human nature; he says there’s more to life than making a match).
How ironic that when our family watched Austen’s “Emma” together, I was annoyed by reckless, restless, romantic Emma, who was uncomfortably close to several character traits I wanted to avoid. Naturally, I thought my dad would agree.
Instead, he began extolling the virtues of the story. He granted me Emma’s immaturity — but look, he said: She grows! In large part thanks to her close friend Mr. Knightley, who on one memorable occasion confronts her selfish, rude behavior towards a poverty-stricken neighbor.
It was a turning point in my attitude toward the movie — and more importantly, toward correction itself.
Mr. Knightley confronts Emma because he respects her: because he not only desires, but expects that she will change. “I must tell you the truth,” he says, “proving myself your friend by the most faithful counsel, trusting that sometime you will do my faith in you greater justice than you do it now.”
Will the Friend who laid down His life for me do any less?
God has infinitely greater grounds for trusting that I will change: He has begun the work, and He has promised to complete it. No, human feedback is not always reliable, but God’s corrections, once welcomed, are certain to bring increased wisdom, greater ability, more knowledge of His Word, more interaction with His Spirit, and more reflection of His character.
“Those whom I love,” Jesus says, “I reprove.”
I can’t wait to see the results.
Copyright 2010 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.