What do you see? Old woman? Or young woman?
This is another gold nugget from Kagan & Lahey’s How the way we talk can change the way we work: seven languages for transformation, which I briefly mentioned here.
I remembered finding the notion of “deconstructive communication” to be a pretty interesting idea while reading the book, but it really hit home for me in the last couple of weeks: a colleague was sharing with me some really difficult feedback and as he was sharing it with me, I was feeling a great deal of discomfort. It was not until several hours after the conversation that I realized that a lot of my discomfort stemmed not from the feedback itself, but from the way it was shared with me.
So what are we talking about here?
The distinction between “constructive criticism” and “destructive criticism” is a well accepted one. Constructive and destructive criticism differ on several attributes. Criticism that is specific, supportive, solution-oriented, and timely is often described as constructive criticism; while criticism that is vague, blames the person, threatening and pessimistic if often described as destructive criticism.
Sharing criticism using constructive framing and language is considered a “best practice”. Even the words chosen to make this distinction make it clear that constructive = good, destructive = bad. Pretty straight forward, right?
But what if constructive criticism also has its challenges?
If we dig one level deeper, and consider the big underlying assumptions of both constructive and destructive feedback, we’ll find that they have a lot in common.
They both assume that the person receiving the criticism is doing something wrong and the person providing it is “setting them straight”.
They both assume that the person proving the criticism “knows the trust” and is now sharing it with the ignorant receiver.
They both assume that the interaction should be transactional and mostly one sided: the job of the person sharing the criticism is the provide it, and the job of the person receiving the criticism is to (gracefully) accept it.
Is there an alternative?
There is. This is what deconstructive communication is all about. Deconstructive communication aims to level the playing field of the dialogue, working under a different set of big underlying assumptions.
It assumes that there is some merit in both perspectives and both perspectives may not be accurate.
It assumes that there may be more than one legitimate interpretation to behaviors.
It assumes that both parties have something to learn from the interaction, and the only we to do so, is through a two-way conversation.
Constructive Communication vs. Deconstructive Communication
Here’s a good summary of the main differences between the two:
Which one should I use?
I would not go as far as to say that constructive communication is bad, and deconstructive communication is good. There are likely some situations in which the assumptions underlying constructive communication are rather accurate. If you choose to use constructive communication, do so while making explicit decision to choosing over deconstructive communication, given the accuracy of its underlying assumptions.
But more often than not, I suspect that the assumptions underlying deconstructive communication are more accurate.
Using deconstructive communication is hard, and requires an even more challenging adaptation period. I am nowhere near mastering it myself. Yet. But anyone who succeeds in modifying the default way in which they engage in conflict from constructive to deconstructive is unlocking a whole other level of personal learning and growth.