How to Tell the Difference Between Constructive Criticism and Bullying

Illustration for article titled How to Tell the Difference Between Constructive Criticism and Bullying

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In the midst of “cancel culture” and living in an extremely politically polarized society, it’s not uncommon to receive feedback from other people. In fact, even the term “feedback” feels euphemistic, given that so many exchanges now—whether on social media or in person—can be heated (to put it mildly). And though it typically doesn’t feel great to be told you’re doing something wrong and/or could improve in some way, there’s a difference between getting constructive criticism from someone, and being bullied. Our fragile egos can make even gentle criticism feel like a personal attack, but that’s not necessarily what’s happening. So what’s the difference between constructive criticism and bullying? Here’s some insight that can help.

Constructive criticism versus bullying

Before going any further, let’s talk about the definitions of both terms. Here’s how Maham Barbar breaks it down in an article for ARY News:

“Constructive criticism is a process of offering well-intended remarks on the work of others so they can know their strengths and weaknesses, which helps them improve in the future.

Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior that is used to exploit someone. This behavior is repeated and it can affect the person’s physical and mental health.”

When differentiating between the two—either as the person on the giving or receiving end of the feedback—here are a few things Barbar suggests that we keep in mind:

Words

Yes, word choice matters. Constructive criticism usually involves at least some words of encouragement, given that the idea is to help someone else improve. Bullying, on the other hand, could involve degrading remarks, and only focusing on weaknesses.

Tone

This is much easier in person than it is on Twitter or in a comments section, but tone can also mean the difference between well-meaning feedback and all-out bullying. According to Barbar, being polite is one way to prevent veering into bullying territory (as long as it isn’t sarcastic).

Keep it short

No one wants to hear someone go on and on about their shortcomings—even in a very polite tone—so if you’re giving someone constructive criticism, get your point across, but don’t beat a dead horse. Once you’ve made your point, move on.

Along the same lines, Barbar advises only offering constructive criticism about something that a person actually has control over. “Criticizing someone for something they can’t change and then walking away makes them feel helpless, and it is actually a form of bullying,” she writes. But if you stick with communicating exactly where improvements could be made, the conversation could end up being motivating.

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