How To Criticize Others Without Ruining Everything (Pt. II)

This concludes the scintillating series on criticism.

As I discussed in part one, criticism is very beneficial and useful.  It is also tricky, however, as human emotions are involved.  This guide is to help us navigate the emotion-infested waters.

Criticism Is Like Wearing Jeans – There Are Three Preferences

1. Tight Jeans – The Country Man

The country man likes his jeans so much that he wants them to be one with his body.  He represents someone who is very comfortable with almost all criticism.

I love criticism because I perceive it as useful information that I can use to improve myself.  I guess this makes me the country man, even though I’m not a country man (darn these analogies).  Even when criticism is spoken with malicious intentions, I usually like it because I might be able to learn from it and it toughens my skin.   Those I am closest to know that I appreciate it when they criticize me (generally, when they are completely honest with me).

2. Baggy Jeans – Thug Man

Thug man does not want the denim to touch his skin.  He represents someone who wishes to avoid the discomfort and confrontation associated with criticism.

Many people perceive any criticism as a threat.  To them, criticism is saying that you don’t accept them for who they are, regardless of your intention.  They want peace and believe that criticism is a statement of war.  Criticizing them is not a good idea.

Special request:  If anyone is an artist, please draw a thug wearing tight jeans along to go with his bling.  I would also love to see a cowboy in typical attire except for his baggy jeans (held up by his substantial belt buckle).  If nobody draws these, the mental images are entertaining enough.

3. Normal jeans – Average Joe

Average Joe likes to know he is wearing jeans, but he still needs some space.  He represents someone who likes some aspects of criticism and dislikes others.

Most people fall into this category – a hybrid of loving/liking and hating/disliking criticism.  Some enjoy criticism that they believe is from good intentions, but are sensitive to it otherwise.  Others might like the idea of constructive criticism, but have difficulty accepting it gracefully in reality.

This brings us to the first rule…

Rule#1: Know Who You’re Talking To.

If you know who you’re talking to, you can criticize them in the correct way.  I learned this the hard way by being very direct and critical with people that do not respond well to that style.  I was trying to get thugs to wear tight jeans.  They will never respond well to that.

Face Statue

This phenomenal photo is of my best friend and a statue in Germany (I spent a month there traveling with him and another cousin). Ben and the statue criticized each other ineffectively.

Rule # 2: Check Your Motives

There are times when we feel like pointing out flaws in others to make ourselves look or feel better. These are not the times to pull the trigger on your criticism gun.  One way to identify if you’re doing this is if you’re reacting to someone.  Constructive criticism with proper motives is not often brought up in response to something.

  • It should be premeditated –  “I think I want to talk to Elvis about chewing with his mouth open.”  Motive = helping Elvis notice the negative social impact of his bad habit.
  • It should not be spontaneously said in an argument – “Elvis, you chew with your mouth open and everyone thinks it’s disgusting.”  Motive = hurting Elvis.  🙁

Discussion vs Argument

Discussions are different from arguments in that they are not driven by emotion.  It is possible to passionately discuss differing views with emotion while maintaining reason.  Discussion turns to argument when you let your emotions control your logic.  As this happens, you will stop considering the other person’s perspective and try to “win.”

Since discussions are fertile ground for relevant criticism, it might be fitting to bring up a critical opinion at that time.  This can be done with the proper motives.  But anytime you’re arguing, your logic is superseded by emotion and your criticism is bound to be malicious in nature.

People derive their views on criticism from their upbringing.  Strict, legalistic families might cause members to be very critical of others or extra sensitive to criticism if they are rebellious.  Liberal families might also cause sensitivity to criticism in the name of not intruding on another person’s choices.  The reason upbringing is crucial is because family is our primary source of criticism growing up – it’s where we develop our understanding of it.

*Important* Rule # 3: Criticism Should Never Be Personal

Here’s the most misunderstood aspect of criticism – it is not personal.  If it is, then it shouldn’t be. When you tell me that you think I spend too much time watching TV, why would I take that personally?  You’re speaking from your idea of what amount of TV-watching is appropriate for someone in my situation (completely unrelated to our relationship) and letting me know about it. Keep this in mind the next time you are giving or receiving criticism.

What if you do have a problem with your relationship (a personal situation)?  Criticism is not the answer. Criticism gets its bad reputation from being abused in this way – it tends to come out in personal situations and it has no place there.  Criticism is about making objective observations of others and giving them your opinion.

If a situation involves something personal like in the following example, you need to talk with the person about how whatever he/she is doing makes you feel and let them decide what to do with it. If you make criticism personal, the real issues are masked and it doesn’t generally work out well.

Example: A wife feels neglected because her husband watches TV instead of spending time with her.

Option One (criticism): “Why are you always watching TV?  You watch it way too much and never spend time with me.”

This does not directly convey that she feels neglected (the real issue), it conveys that she disapproves of his actions. Because criticism focuses on our actions, personal feelings are often hidden.  Look at the emotion in the words above – they are obviously there and yet the focus is 100% on what he is doing wrong.

You may have noticed she uses the words “always” and “never.”  Be careful with these in personal conversations – they are rarely true and often offensive.  How is he going to respond to this comment?

He might try to level the playing field with, “Well, you always go to the movies with your friends and leave me here, so I watch TV.”

He might defend his position of TV watching with, “I am not always watching TV.  I work hard to provide for this family and I deserve a break.  Plus, we went to the park together yesterday.”

Neither of his likely responses relates to the issue – that she feels neglected.

Option Two (explanation of feelings): “I felt neglected yesterday when you watched TV instead of spending time with me.”

This response puts the issue right on the table and it is not going to demand a defensive response like the first one.  It’s specific and something they can discuss.  If it is a recurring feeling, then the wife can mention that to let her husband know it isn’t a one time occurrence.

It would be difficult for him to respond defensively because the focus is not on what he is doing wrong, but on how his actions make his wife feel (something that is hopefully very important to him). His wife is being vulnerable with him by telling him that she’s hurt by his actions, and he will respect that vulnerability and trust she is putting in him.  His response will likely be something like this.

He might explain why he watches TV with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt neglected.  I like to watch TV to relax after a hard day of work, but I can definitely cut back and spend more time with you.”

Or he might directly address the focus of his wife’s comment with an apology, “Honey, I’m so sorry and had no idea you ever felt that way when I watched TV.”

Either way, his response is very likely to address the real issue at hand (TV affecting their relationship negatively) instead of what he did wrong.

Rule # 4 – Don’t Surprise The Person!

It is very helpful for the other person if you set the stage by letting them know you’re about to talk to them about something important.  If you surprise someone with a critical remark, they are more likely to react instead of think.  Their reaction will be based on emotion (probably anger).

Even if you follow the other factors perfectly, surprising someone with criticism can ruin everything – so don’t do it!

There you have it – follow these 4 rules and you’ll be criticizing (i.e. helping) your friends in no time.  It is a great idea to talk with your friends and family about their views on criticism to find out their comfort level.  There is no need to guess when you can talk about it.

If you would like to practice criticism – you can start right now.  Find something you don’t like about my blog and tell me about it in the comments.  If you would like me to give you feedback on how effectively you presented your criticism, I can do that.  Please share this if you like it, because I spent more than 10 hours on it.  🙂

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.

Martin

Good post. So, practicing…
hey Stephen, just wanted to let you know that I recently found your blog and I really like what you write. Although I could definitely read your articles more easily, if you tweak your blog design a little. Specially the header/left nav, that are a little old (design wise) and they are distracting me a little from the content.

…how was that? 🙂

sguise

Hey Martin!

Thanks so much for that. 🙂

That was pretty amazing criticism. You know why? I had zero emotional reaction to it because of the way you worded it and surrounded it with positivity.

I think I understand what you’re saying – that the NAV menu looks odd in the header. I am going to take your criticism to heart and change it so that the nav menu is underneath or above the header. Thanks again Martin!

RILEY HARRISON

I like your blog. It’s well illustrated with relevant pictures, provides substance with originality and uses light hearted, quirky humor.
Riley

sguise

Thank you Riley. 🙂

Martyn Chamberlin

Haha I’m an artist but I can’t draw stuff on the fly like that. I have to have models. I would need a real cowboy wearing real tight jeans. ;-P

So my one criticism of this blog? Find a design you like and stick with it. You’re actually damaging your image by moving stuff around all the time. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s kind of like going into Walmart and discovering they’ve moved all the groceries around again – you get confused and it ruins your “brand image.”

Okay I’m guilty of that myself, so I can’t criticize too hard here. But I’ve *finally* designed it like I want it, and any new changes I make to it are pretty minor cosmetics.

Granted, tweaking (and major overhauling too) is a lot of fun. My advice is to maybe install WordPress on a ghost domain and play around with Thesis there instead? Then when you make something you really like and want to keep, paste it here. (Let you in on a little secret. My ghost domain is freepaintings.net. You can’t tell anyone!)

Okay, since you spent over ten hours writing this masterpiece I tweeted it. Great job, good writing takes patience.

You land some good subscribers from your latest Problogger article?

sguise

Hey Martyn,

I am gravely disappointed that you can’t draw a baggy jeans cowboy, but I understand.

Thank you so much for those insights. You should read my Problogger post tomorrow, because it promotes this major blogmetic surgery I’ve been performing. You’ll see how many header images I’ve been through. 😛 I agree with you that it hurts the image in the short term. The reason I keep doing it is because I haven’t been satisfied with it (until now maybe).

I don’t know how to set up a ghost domain – though I have thought about it(wouldn’t I have to purchase Thesis again for that?). Everyone, Martyn’s ghost site is freepaintings.net! Go visit him there!

Thanks for the tweet! I got an appropriate amount for the traffic I received, but my first PB post was more popular. This latest one produced much more interaction on my blog though, so I was pleased with that.

Hugo Martins

This is not criticism. It is an opinion.

I think it would have made a bigger impact if you had released this second part of the criticism series after one or two different posts.

I was personally eager to read it but my mind was set to wait one or two posts for it, and I would have read them anyway just because I was waiting for this second post. I think you would have profited a little bit more. Once again, I know nothing about what I’m talking about.

Aside from that, keep pumpin’ out Great content!

P.S: Don’t forget to criticize my grammar 😛

sguise

Ah, that makes a lot of sense. Originally, I was going to write it as one post. Then I realized it was going to be a small book. You do know what you’re talking about because you’re explaining your thoughts on the matter. As I said, it makes sense to me and I will likely space out the next series I write as you suggested.

I will pay attention to your grammar and let you know if I see anything. That comment was perfect grammatically – well done!

Chris Jones@soundspott

Guise,
Thanks for the great tips . I hope it will help me a lot in my review writing. And about criticizing your blog- You are not writing often- you should write at least once in two days. You should pay attention on the layout some more.
Good Part- You got great content, Great Headlines and Skills
Regards
Chris

sguise

Hey Chris,

Thank you for the criticism! Lately I’ve been writing less often because I just moved. I try to publish a new post every 2-4 days generally. I will keep that in mind.

Could you be more specific about the layout? Is there a certain aspect of it that you dislike? Thanks again! 🙂

Ashvini

Criticism is really useful when it is told professionally and is not meant to hurt as you mentioned.
Criticism is often used as a manipulative method, for e.g. to bring a person down when he is trying to be upbeat. It is often used as mental dump of a person who is pessimistic in his view of life about everything.
I have one relative who just want a shoulder to cry on and criticize her husband and his parents( not always wrong though) for anything she perceives is not right according to her.
So much so that both my wife and me have started avoiding talking to her because of the unfair criticism she unloaded on us.
If I create a product and want someone to review it, I should be ready to face criticism that may range from “Um you can improve this” to “This is one crap piece of product”. The idea is not to let it go through the head.
When I started my online grocery business(closed down now), I got all kinds of responses from “Prices are not right” to “There are so few products” to ” A good idea”. It was all part of the feedback process and all kinds of replies were expected.
Some days back someone told me that my blog design needs UI improvement. He recently joined a new UI team and was just trying to show off. I proceeded to ask him “to give specific points regarding improvement”. He could not give any. That does not mean my blog did not need improvement. I went and made many changes to it after that.
The point is that people offload their criticism without a complete analysis and because criticizing makes them feel better( just as kids seek attention ). It is our job to get the needle out of the haystack ( and then stick it in our body 🙂 ).
As for providing criticism, I do it very very less because people are touchy and difficult when you say something negative about them. If I have to do it , I use “Do you think..”. Then I check for their mental matureness for making further criticism.

Sorry for writing such a long comment. Your blog post picked my brain. Great post. Looking forward to many of them in future.

Chris Jones@soundspott

My eyes are annoying by the Light Sky Blue background of your Bio.You should also think about a new and attractive Log. This one is not very attractive.You know first impression can bring you a Lot.

Barry | A Leader Quotes Success

Interesting post, Stephen! There’s a quote I like about honesty that seems to fit well here: “People who are brutally honest get more satisfaction out of the brutality than out of the honesty” – Richard Needham. You’re exactly right – we need to give feedback in the best interest of the recipient, and not because we are upset about it (in the moment, anyway).

Rule #4 is a tough one, though. Almost by definition, someone being owed criticism is unaware of what needs critiqued. Priming the statement by, “I have some criticism for you…” already puts them on the defensive. And, as you note, slapping them with it – “Eating with your mouth open is acceptable – if you’re a barbarian!” – also prompts a defensive emotional reaction. Given that, how would you recommend approaching this conversation?

Martyn Chamberlin

Well technically you’re supposed to purchase it again, but I think Chris Pearson would be understanding since it’s just a ghost domain. 🙂

Basically, you buy a new domain, install WordPress and your theme, update the custom CSS and Functions, publish a fake post, and you’ve duplicated your current site. Then you can tweak to your heart’s content.

sguise

Hahaha, get the needle out and stick it in our body!? There must be another way. 🙂

It’s true that most people are sensitive to criticism. It is so widely abused that people have learned to dislike it. I for one have benefited greatly from it – including the comments in this post.

Great thoughts Ashvini, and please don’t apologize for writing a long comment. This is the thinking blog and deep, insightful comments are encouraged here!

sguise

Thank you Barry.

My suggestion for bringing criticism up is to do whatever it takes to let the person know you’re on their team and trying to help them. To make sure I’m not copping out with that response, I’ll list a few methods I’ve found effective.

In a recent situation, I started out sharing deep, unquestionable concern. When someone can see that you’re actually very worried about them (and of course don’t feign this), they will respond by trying to understand why you’re feeling this way. When I did this, it completely changed the dynamic of what was a very sensitive subject. When people see you care, they won’t take it personally.

Another method that works, but I’m not a huge fan of, is sandwiching criticism in between compliments. This is good because it lets the person know that you see more than flaws in them. I’ve just seen this technique abused before and it bothers me when used to manipulate. A good example of doing this well is what Martin said in the first comment – he said he enjoyed my writing and proceeded with criticism. It definitely lessened my “natural defenses.”

The last method I’d recommend is probably my favorite – and that is just explaining the situation in more depth. Clarity in communication prevents the misunderstanding that causes improper emotional responses. For example:

“Hey Barry, I wanted to talk to you sometime about something that has been on my mind. Please understand beforehand that this isn’t anything hostile and I only want to bring it up because I care about you. Is this a good time to bring it up?”

I like that because it is honest and it lays the groundwork for constructive criticism. In addition, it gives the receiver complete control over when they receive criticism so that they can prepare their mind to be open to it. Surprises are not ideal because the receiver feels blindsided – this ensures that there is no surprise when the actual criticism is brought up.

What do you think of those?

sguise

Ah, I gotcha. Thanks for the tips! Have you used Thesis? Or do you just go with Studiopress?

Armand Polanski

Stephen,

I like your blogs because of the very readable writing form. It can stand by words alone.

Can Rule # 5 be “Say it with a Fun, Quirky and Indirect Way”?

As much as possible, I find other ways to criticize people indirectly, I may joke about it,tell a story about my friend who had the same criticizeable characteristic or just tell them what I like or don’t like in somebody and if they ask “Are you pertaining to me?”, i would reply “No, No, NO, I was just saying this so that you know me better.”

What’s your thought’s?

sguise

Armand,

Thanks very much.

Personally, I’m not a fan of that method. My personality is to be very direct and honest, so that method doesn’t really suit me. If you are able to do this effectively and help others, then by all means do it! I wonder though if they would rather you just say it upfront if they sense you are indirectly criticizing them.

I would definitely say to be very positive about it. Criticism by nature is somewhat negative in that it deals with problems, so being positive and uplifting about it is very important.

Barry | A Leader Quotes Success

All good! My standard approach is #2, or, as one of my colleagues calls it – “The But Sandwich.” (“Positive thing, but negative thing, but positive thing!”) #3 is powerful, too, for the reasons you mention – it helps the receiver feel more in control throughout. You have to use it carefully, though. If for some reason they say, “no, this isn’t a good time”, they now have that nagging question in the back of their mind about what you wanted to share…in addition to it already not being a good time! 🙂

Thank you for the response, Stephen! I’m in the process of writing a post in my feedback series on giving effective feedback, and I appreciate your insight!

Armand Polanski

Their are times I use this method depending on the person I talk to. I usually do this with people I met for the first time or friends who I know react badly to criticism.

I was surprised with the “Almost New Look” on your blog.

sguise

If I know someone can’t handle criticism, I typically just leave them alone in that area. 🙂

Yeah, I’ve been working on it and implementing some of the advice that the readers are giving me. Still trying to get it just right.

Armand Polanski

(On the look)

I have been looking a specific look for my site to and what I did was asked around 10 of my friends who were either architecture majors, photographers or fine arts majors.

I ended up going for the minimalist approach. I actually like your site design because it’s very readable but maybe some of your readers are looking for a distinct look that will stick in there mind and say “Oh, this is Deep Existence.”

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