How to Criticize |

5 min read

Jeremy Sherman

There’s a lot of talk about how, in these tough times, we have to be kinder to each other. There’s something to it—just not everything.

We don’t have to get along just with each other. We have to get along with reality, too. For that, we must also be more honest and less “fragid” (fragile/rigid). All of us—even those of us (and there are many on all sides) who think we’re somehow the good, decent, kind, brave, open-minded people who welcome all honesty as if it’s not a disappointment.

The world is on the lip of a dissociation death spiral that could extinguish us. Reality is getting rough. We’re getting testier and more in need of escapist affirmation that we’re the good-guy heroes. Escaping, we neglect reality, which gets even worse, leading to even greater escapism. Humanity is at risk of expiring by escapist brain fart.

Turns out the meek will not inherit the earth. We have to toughen up if we’re going to make it.

How then to maximize receptivity to our honest opinions about each other and what’s really going on? It’s a challenge. Here are some things I try to keep in mind when you’re giving criticism.

  1. Remember your honest criticism is not truth. Obviously. Lots of people honestly believe untrue things. Be honest but don’t pretend you’re telling the truth about reality, just about your opinion. Even if you’re in a position of authority—you get to decide what happens; you don’t got to claim you’ve got absolute truth.
  2. Signal that it’s just your opinion clearly and plainly so recipients don’t mistake you for thinking you’re the supreme judge. They know it’s just your opinion; you must show them that you know it is, too.
  3. Don’t assume that because you spotted a flaw in them, it proves you don’t have that flaw. It’s not only off-putting, it’s untrue. We’re all better at spotting other people’s flaws than our own.
  4. Criticism tastes bitter. People will want to spit it out on contact, but some gets in anyway to be digested later. Even those who reject your criticism on first contact will think about it. Trust them to sort nutrient from waste in their own time.
  5. Show compassion not just by putting yourself in their shoes but by remembering when they were yours. Nothing human is foreign to any of us. They’ll ingest your criticism better if you can talk about times when you’ve done things similar to what you’re criticizing in them. Self-effacing humor makes the medicine go down
  6. No one likes feeling inadequate. If you criticize, they’ll feel attacked as inadequate and will be tempted to retaliate. Conflict often escalates into two people fighting over who’s right and who’s wrong about everything. Don’t engage in that. Give your criticism and let them respond however they do, including their counterattacks.
  7. We all get slippery when we’re criticized, which makes it hard to know how many times to repeat your criticism to get heard. Try to guess well, and if you fail, live and learn. Adjust how you deal with the person and people in general.
  8. If they respond in ways that make your criticism feel misplaced, stand corrected without losing dignity.
  9. Don’t assume that their counterattacks are merely defensive retaliation. If you’re the first to criticize, you’re opening the floor to criticism. If criticism is fair game, they may have some stored for you, too. Weather and consider it. Again, criticizing them isn’t evidence that you’re flawless. Throw stones, but remember, your glass house has plenty of flaws, too.
  10. Try not to use loaded terms that make it sound as if they’re doing something no decent person (like you) would ever do.
  11. If loaded terms get floated, don’t treat them like they’re loaded. For example, if they counter that you’re judgmental (naughty) and uncaring (naughty) for attacking (naughty) them, remember that there’s a time and place for everything in the human repertoire. You’re trying to figure out when to judge, where to care, and how to attack. In trying, you’ll make mistakes. But not the simplifying, stupefying mistake of assuming that judgment, uncaring, and attacking are always wrong.
  12. There is no supreme judge who decides what’s true—not you, not them. They’ll tend to imply that they’re the authority on their own nature. They aren’t. Obviously. Lots of people are clueless about their own nature. They get to decide what to do about your criticism. They don’t get to decide how they appear to others.
  13. Live-and-let-live is easy if you don’t have to live with each other. If their choices don’t affect you, don’t get hooked on changing them. Give the criticism and leave it at that.
  14. Don’t back off just because they scold you for criticizing them. Remember if someone deems you wrong, bad, and immoral for thinking what you do, you don’t have to change your thoughts. They’re just inviting you to keep them in the dark about what you think.

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