Constructive criticism and just plain complainin’ ain’t the same!

(No, it's not proper grammar but that sentence screams the truth—in a Southern accent!)

What’s the difference between constructive criticism and the usual complaint?

If you’ll listen, people will tell you when they are focused on contributing what it takes to correct or improve a situation versus keeping the spotlight on what is wrong.

Even though complainers often contend they’re providing a service simply by pointing out problems or making their grievances known, they regularly fall short of presenting solutions that require brainpower or any other sincere effort. Accordingly, those who offer constructive criticism tend to reflect the following character qualities that don’t shine in people who are stuck on complaining:

Good Faith
Constructive criticism begins with the intention to resolve a problem. The critique’s purpose, therefore, is to help another succeed in some needed effort. In contrast, rather than give the other party any valid encouragement, a complainer is motivated to let the problem continue, even worsen. Ultimately, the complainer anticipates gaining something from the other’s failure.

Constructive Criticism Says: Mary, your report is missing the raw data. Please create a reference section with those numbers before tomorrow’s meeting. If the client raises questions about the stats, we will be prepared with the information in hand.

Complaining Says: Mary’s report is incomplete! This shouldn’t be happening. Sue, don’t you agree she should know better? Granted, Mary’s new to my team, and I know you want me to give her a chance, but she should have learned a few things from Bob. I take that back; Bob is not the most buttoned-up person. In fact, I should be managing Bob.

Constructive criticism defines the objective and uses clear language to tackle the problem at hand. In contrast, complaining doesn’t always know what it wants. Even when it knows but possibly wants to be difficult, it speaks in general terms and/or fails to focus on a tangible element that can be addressed.

Constructive Criticism Says: Joe, when you groom Bailey, please keep the fur on her legs about two inches long so they’re fluffier. Here’s a photo you may keep for reference.

Complaining Says: Joe, I don’t like the way you groomed Bailey. What did you do to her legs? The last time, her head looked weird. The time before that, it was her tail. I’m just not happy.

Constructive criticism understands the relevance of time in all matters, such as for learning, creating, producing, forgiving, etc. In contrast, complaining refuses to wait.

Constructive Criticism Says: Until you deliver my piano on Friday, may I use one of your practice rooms to prepare for my audition?

Complaining Says: I don't remember anyone saying it would take a full week to get my piano. The buyer already picked up my old piano. Thanks for putting me in this predicament. I should have gone to your competitor. You need to do something!

Constructive criticism seeks reasonable actions and appreciates compromise. In contrast, complaining demands that someone else take full responsibility and refuses to budge on the terms.

Constructive Criticism Says: While I’m returning the set of glasses two days later than your store policy specifies, you’ll see that the original stickers and tissue are untouched. Nothing was taken from the box. I purchased the set for my sister before learning that she had bought some glasses for herself. I’d be happy with a store credit. Altering your policy would mean a great deal to me, as well as to many of my friends who love coming here for gifts.

Complaining Says: I don’t care about your store policy. It’s ridiculous! I’ll never come back. I’ll tell all my friends if you don’t treat me fairly with a full refund!

Critical Thought
Constructive criticism utilizes critical thinking to solve problems. In contrast, complaining jumps to conclusions, dwells on the negative and expects the worst possible outcome.

Constructive Criticism Says: Based on my online research and years of digging in my grandmother’s vegetable garden, I’ve drawn a diagram to help you get started. If you’ll switch the squash to full sun and the lettuce to partial shade, you’ll have more success. I’ve printed some detailed guidelines for you, too. Would you like some help preparing the rows?

Complaining Says: This is probably a waste of time. What do you know about gardening? I’m not so sure that you should be planting the squash over there. After spending all this money on plants and potting soil, I hope you’ll have enough money left over to buy your vegetables from the market! Ugh! I really didn’t want to get my shoes dirty today!

Granted, most of us have our moments when we complain, and letting it out can be therapeutic, like a good cry. Witnesses to it will sometimes tolerate a degree of ranting, whining or sighing, but most eventually lose patience when negativity becomes a habit.

Our words affect our attitude as much as they impact how others perceive us. Being mindful of that is a good start to ending complaining and beginning conversations about how to correct what’s wrong or enhance what isn’t so bad after all.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at