We live in an age where the line between criticism and nastiness has blurred. I'm not sure how this happened or when it began, but there are signs of it everywhere, especially on the Internet and in the media. The Internet offers anonymity, distance, and the ability to say pretty much whatever we want about people. Nastiness masked as criticism is a staple of television and radio, whether it's Gordon Ramsay hurling invective at restaurant workers on his Kitchen Nightmares show, Simon Cowell coming up with ever more creative ways of informing American Idol contestants that they have no talent, or talk show hosts making snide comments about a politician's appearance. Our appetite for seeing other people criticized appears to know no bounds.
I'm sure you've personally encountered this kind of behavior. You've probably had a boss or colleague who took perverse pride in reminding you of your shortcomings. Maybe you yourself have been guilty of treating someone this way. How we give and receive criticism speaks volumes about our character, so this column is an appropriate venue for considering better and worse ways of criticizing people and how we ought to respond when someone finds fault with our own work.
What Is Criticism, Anyway?
Being taken to task for something we've said or done suggests that we're fallible, and who wants to admit that he or she is flawed? If we don't have high self-esteem, criticism validates our already low opinion of ourselves. If we're strong and self-confident, criticism might surprise us with an unflattering view of ourselves. Regardless of how one feels about oneself, it seems criticism is something that any reasonable person wishes to avoid.
However the goal of true criticism is to help someone be the best they can be. It is not about making someone feel bad, instilling guilt, or reducing a person to tears, though all of these can be an unfortunate byproduct. When criticism is done appropriately, the person who has been criticized will understand what he or she has done wrong and will feel inspired to make a change for the better. Not only should we not avoid being criticized, we should embrace criticism because it is the only way we can continue to grow professionally and personally.
Criticism Should Recognize the Good in Others
Think about the full, rich life you've led thus far. You have enjoyed many professional and personal successes. You have been kind and generous to people. You have done lots of wonderful things that make it easy to like what you see when you look in the mirror.
Now think about some of the less noble choices you've made. You've cheated. You've lied. You intentionally hurt someone's feelings and refused to apologize. In other words, you have been—on occasion—all too human. We all have. Wouldn't it be unfair for you to be reduced to nothing more than the sum of your poor choices? Wouldn't you resent having your many praiseworthy actions forgotten about when someone is troubled by something you've done? Of course you would, and you would be justified in feeling this way. Anyone who has lived beyond the age of three or four will have tallied up at least a few disgraceful decisions, but to be seen as nothing more than those bad decisions just isn't right.
Criticism should include an acknowledgment of what the other person has done well, as well as an account of what he or she has not.
Criticism Should Not Be Personal
It's easy to criticize the person rather than his or her ideas, but just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. The Internet in particular is rife with personal attacks posing as criticism. For example, a person identifying himself as "peter" responded to my column on the ethics of office gambling (BusinessWeek.com, 1/28/08) by posting: "Shut up, you're such a baby!" Grammatical problems aside, "peter" said nothing at all about the point I was making.
Responding to the same column, "cp" wrote:
I really can't believe this guy has a PhD and is wasting his time writing a column like this. I guess a PhD makes him smarter than me and I really didn't know until a smart person like him pointed this out to me. Sounds to me someone needs to go out and make some friends to learn what it is like to be a NORMAL person.
Well, I may have been completely mistaken in arguing against betting at the office, but both "peter" and "cp” missed an opportunity to explain why this was so.
The only meaningful criticism about a person's ideas focuses on the soundness or validity of that person's argument rather than his or her personal characteristics. This means we must consider the truth of the claims in the argument and whether the conclusion logically follows from the premise. Anything else isn't criticism at all, but merely an attempt by the critic to blow off steam, get some attention, transfer his or her frustrations to someone else, or any number of other irrelevant issues.
Why It's In Our Own Interest to Acknowledge Criticism
What should we do when someone criticizes us? As long as the criticism isn't petty, vicious, personal, or otherwise way off base, we should take it to heart. It's only by carefully considering what a critic has to say that we're able to become better. Of course it's hard to do this, since we need to have both self-confidence and humility to acknowledge that we may be misguided. It's understandable that our first reaction to criticism is a refusal to consider the critic's points. Nevertheless even the most expert among us can have room for improvement. We can't maintain excellence or hope to improve if we refuse to work on ourselves, which means, in part, taking criticism seriously.
The Rules of Fair Play
When you want to criticize someone:
1. Begin by finding something you like or appreciate about the person you're about to criticize. This is not only fair, but will also make the person more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.
2. Focus on what that person has said or done, not on him or her personally. Only the former is relevant and likely to be acknowledged.
3. Conclude by affirming your faith that the other person will consider what you have to say. This is both a respectful way to wrap up the criticism and the best way to ensure that your remarks will be given their due.
When someone criticizes you:
1. Resist the urge to dismiss the critic. Considering what the person has to say will only strengthen your own understanding of the issue you care about.
2. Recognize that you may not be right. You may be unaware of one or more of the facts relevant to your argument, or you may have ignored some of the rules or principles at stake.
3. Realize that ad hominem attacks say more about the person making them than about you. Rather than sink to the level of such attacks, it's wise to ignore them.
Our goal in life can be to bring out the best in others and ourselves, or it can be to puff up our own egos and debase others by exploiting our power over them. If the former is our mission, we would do well to give criticism respectfully and receive it graciously whenever it is offered in good faith.