What’s the difference between constructive criticism and bullying?

Much of our cultural conversation lately has been centered on the systemic problem of abuse in our society, whether that’s related to harassment in the workplace or bullying online. And this is a good thing — these are difficult conversations to have, but we need to have them if things can ever begin to change for the better.

And amid these talks, you may be wondering about the daily interactions you have in your own life — what are you doing that’s right and what are you doing that’s wrong, and the same for what people are doing to you. For example, maybe your boss is overly critical of you, and you never thought much of it before, but now you might realize you’re being bullied, and you’re not quite sure how to handle it. Or maybe you’re the one in charge and you’re not sure if you’re bullying the colleagues around you, when all you mean is to provide helpful, constructive criticism.

How do we know the difference between constructive criticism and bullying, and what can we do to ensure we never fall into the latter category?

On a surface level, it seems pretty simple, or at least like it should be. But humans and our interactions are so nuanced and complex that it’s rarely as simple as it seems. But it’s still totally possible to delineate between bullying and being critical in a way that’s productive.

The first thing to do is to define both constructive criticism and bullying, so you can easily identify them as they occur. Constructive criticism is designed to help someone improve something. It’s purely a way to provide information and/or observations that exists solely to benefit them.

Negative criticism, on the other hand, is “designed to discredit, demean, humiliate, or harm someone’s reputation,” according to Susan Ways, an HR consultant who works in leadership development, coaching and training. In 2015, she wrote about how your intentions can be what turns something from constructive feedback to a flat-out personal attack.

One important thing to note is that bullying is abuse, full stop. There are really no grey areas with this, but there are many types of bullying that can exist, and some are more subtle than others. Bullying can be verbal (name-calling or teasing), social (isolating a person or spreading rumors to tarnish their reputation), or physical; it can exist in person or in writing online.

Bullying has three core elements to it, which can help distinguish whether or not the issue at hand is bullying or constructive criticism.

The first is an imbalance of power, which is why those in positions of power have the ability to harass or abuse those beneath them.

As mentioned before, bullying hinges on intent, so you can ask yourself, “what is the intent here?” Constructive criticism is not a way to personally attack someone, so if you believe you’re the target of intended isolation, demeaning, or discrediting, it’s likely that you’re being bullied.

Another way to define bullying is through repetition. Are you being targeted over and over again? It might be a case of bullying.

So how can you be sure that you don’t accidentally bully someone in your life, whether it’s at work, online, or in your inner circle?

It’s all about the delivery. If you’ve got to give someone feedback and want to be sure it’s constructive, don’t make it personal. Don’t characterize a person based entirely on one mistake or instance. Addressing someone’s behavior is different than addressing someone as a person, according to Ways. Also, be careful about the language you’re using, including “always” or “never.” As Ways puts it, “No one is all or nothing. We may have tendencies that we demonstrate more frequently and those should be addressed as such but not overstated.”

Be sure to give feedback in person, and keep an open dialogue so that the person you’re dealing with feels empowered to ask questions, without feeling belittled or patronized. Also, constructive criticism never includes threats, and if you’re threatening someone in any way, that’s abusive.

Finally, you’ve got to practice what you preach, so you should be sure to model the behavior you’re giving feedback on. The golden rule still applies, and you should always treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s the only way we can ever see positive, lasting change.