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.  🙂

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