is a Woven Web of Guesses.
The 5th key to learning.
What is key in learning? This is the fifth of a
number of keys that are meant to bring understanding about what
learning is and how leaning can be improved by understanding the
message of those keys. This key is about the necessity of criticism in
learning. This key is about keeping our minds open to the views of
others and so learn; it is about how to change other's views so they
can learn; and it is about how to avoid feeling bad when criticized so
you can learn.
"Ask for a slap in the face." Paul
"You may not realize it when it happens,
but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."
"Think not those faithful who praise all
thy words and actions, but those who kindly reprove thy faults."
"A wise skepticism is the first attribute
of a good critic." James Russell Lowell
Be prepared to be criticized.
In the pursuit of knowledge nothing is certain.
We must be prepared to revise what we know again and again. Overcoming
the fear of criticism and learning how to benefit from and take heed of
criticism, is the second most crucial step for effective learning. We
must come to enjoy criticism and revision, as part of a more accurate
and complete understanding, enabling us to truly learn efficiently. It
is a sad fact, that in most people, there is some confusion between the
ideas that we hold (our theories and conjectures) and our sense of
self. If someone attacks our ideas, we tend to experience and view it
as an attack on our self. Not only that, but in presenting our ideas,
we often do it in such a way as to make it clear, that any criticism of
those ideas will be taken as an attack on ourselves. In this way,
criticism is often precluded before it can even begin. In this way we
may never hear criticism as our critics are normally too afraid to
"Honest criticism is hard to take,
especially from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger."
Franklin P. Jones
avoid criticism do nothing say nothing be nothing." Elbert
Criticism is a much
maligned activity, but unfortunately is so, for very good reasons. The
fact is that criticism, as it is used by most people, is hostile and
unconstructive. Thus it causes people to be defensive. Indeed our
hackles seem to rise at the very mention of the word critic. Of course,
we are most familiar with critics of the arts (painting, sculpture,
theatre and movie critics). These critics are seldom constructive, and
are often scathing and vitriolic. They fit the image of being pompous,
writing and speaking as if they know better than the artist, as to the
merits of the artistic work.
This is so negative that there is an old saying:
"Those that cannot do, teach, and those who cannot teach, criticize."
Is it any wonder then that people get the wrong
idea about criticism? In their book "The Artist's Way at Work" Bryan,
Cameron and Allen spell this out:
"Unfair criticism is
indirect, unprincipled, and ambiguous; personal, negative and
derogatory. Any criticism that attacks us as people rather than
addresses us as potentially competent is toxic criticism.
Toxic criticism creates
toxic work environments - negative, backbiting, and backsliding - where
honesty becomes harder and harder to come by. Expecting that
confronting problems will only bring us pain and debasement, we defend
rather than listen, lie rather than explore, deny rather than
experience the situation. Eventually, our anger at ourselves for being
inauthentic festers until we strike out in defiance or succumb to
burnout. This dynamic can happen at any level in a company. Defiance
creates resistance, and resistance to criticism creates stalemates.
Stalemates create stagnation, which creates depression, which breeds
despair. A despairing work environment is truly abysmal;
counterproductive, anticreative and all too common."
People do not want to be
wrong, so they tend to avoid the very process that will enable them to
eventually be right. Thus we tend to avoid criticism. Not only do we do
this, but we also tend to shy away from all forms of refutation, and
instead seem to seek to confirm. It is more comfortable for the brain
to seek confirmation of its theories and conjectures than is is to seek
disproval of them. Unfortunately this tends to polarize the things that
we know into black and white categories or cause them to be extreme. We
should instead embrace the principle of accepting criticism.
Clearly we should be self critical, and like the
best scientists never overlook the anomalies and not shy away from
refuting the things that we believe. But humans usually do not. Seeing
that we are unable to do this, we should then, be prepared to be
criticized by others using this scientific method. Alas we remain
unprepared. This all goes back to our most primitive need, the need to
find certainties in the world and thus in knowledge. It may well be
that early inability to make sense of the world may have led the unwary
into error. It is our lack of confidence in a consistent world that
causes various groups to cling to what they believe. This causes people
to try and prove, rather than disprove, to believe rather than
disbelieve, to seek certainty rather than be skeptical.
Many sorts of criticism.
are many sorts of criticism and this site will attempt place a critical
eye on all of them. Unless we make a conscious effort to be aware of
the types of criticism we are giving or receiving, we will not have a
clue about the type of criticism or its function. Even if we do make
the effort, we are faced with an enormously difficult task, because
criticism is never a pure type and comes out all mixed up together.
People use mixtures of all four of the types of criticism mentioned
below, all mixed up together all the time. Not only that, but people
are most often unaware of their objectives in giving the criticism, and
thus have no clue as to which types of criticism they are giving or
getting. There are no little signs that pop up during the criticism to
clue us in, but a little knowledge can help guide us.
Four types of criticism.
let us look at the four important categorical functions. Criticism
performs four very different functions in human relations and social
intercourse, and three of those functions are toxic. The four functions
are as follows:
This is criticism that is meant to hurtful to the
person being criticized. We use this sort of criticism we we want to
hurt someone, usually when we are angry or if we hold a grudge.
This is criticism that is meant to control the
person being criticized. We use it when we want to get somebody to do
something that we want done. This kind of criticism rarely achieves
it's objective of getting that something done. But even when it seems
to be successful, the result is the very minimum, for it it is done
This is criticism that is meant to diminish the
person being criticized so that the criticizer can feel superior.
This is the criticism that is meant to facilitate
the person being criticized, so that person is improved in the act of
Criticism that hurts.
usually know when people do not like us or are holding a grudge against
us. When being criticized by such people we should expect some
criticism that means to intentionally hurt us. Likewise, we will tend
to find this kind of toxicity in our own criticism, if we dislike or
hold a grudge against some person we are criticizing. When we are angry
we will tend to use criticism that is meant to hurt. Anger is a strong
emotion that tends to override other considerations and we are all
subject to it. Sometimes the criticism we receive is not really aimed
at us at all, and the criticizer is angry with somebody else. In a
moment of anger caused by somebody else we too can give out hurtful
criticism. In any case, it is always a good idea to avoid giving or
receiving criticism when anyone is angry.
Criticism that controls.
There is a fatal flaw in human beings that goes back to our early need
for certainty in how the universe works. We want to control the world
and the most straightforward easiest way of doing this with people
often seems to be coercive and kick-start the person. This does not
work well on the universe and only seems to work well on people.
Controlling criticism tends to build resistance and resentment on the
one hand and compliance and lack of initiative on the other. This
destructive criticism tends to end in pain for the criticizer and the
criticized. The tendency of people to use this kind of criticism is
often directly related to the strength of the entity self-theory or
fixed mindset that they hold.
Criticism that diminishes.
The desire to diminish others so that you can feel superior is also
almost always caused by the person criticizing holding an entity
self-theory or a fixed mindset. How much you tend to use this kind of
criticism will largely depend on where your self-theory
falls on the entity incremental continuum. This one-upmanship also has
dire consequences for both the criticizer and the criticized.
Criticism that facilitates learning.
This type of criticism actually performs two different although similar
functions. Firstly, this kind of criticism is a major factor in how the
body of knowledge which is held in common for all humanity, that is
Popper's world 3, is changed, improved and is nurtured to grow.
Secondly, this kind of criticism is used to try to change people,
hopefully for the better. This kind of criticism is of course, although
well intentioned, not always correct. The thing is not to accept any
criticism as necessarily correct, but to be open to the possibility
that you might be wrong. It is essential for the functioning of world 3
knowledge, and is normally helpful in promoting the mental growth of
ordinary human beings. This was explored in the dialogues of Plato as
well as the writings of the other most important philosophers, where
each person listens to the logic of what the other is saying without
fearing any threats to the self. Clearly to do this we must be
confident not only in our ability to be right, but also to feel safe in
our ability to be wrong.
In life one thing is sure. No
matter what we do, we will inevitably be criticized for doing it. The
more lives we affect, the more we become a target for people's
criticism of what we have done. But this criticism is mostly a good
thing, as it enables what we have done to be reversed, sharpened or
improved. This applies especially to the written word.
function of criticism in learning.
Criticism serves two purposes in learning.
It functions as a service provided by the criticizer to enable the
recipient to improve his/her work.
Or it functions as a service provided to the recipient by the
criticizer to enable them to improve themselves by improving their
Somehow, some way we need to make friends with criticism. Criticism can
be our best friend. In fact our best friend should be our most severe
critic. Who else can expose our flaws and foibles if not our best
friend? Critics are not, and should not be, special people. Everyone
can and should criticize anything and everything. The important thing
is not to be hostile in criticism but to be constructive and helpful
for the purpose of improving others, their work and the world in
The function of a critics should be to help improve and refine our
work. They should expose our weaknesses, but not lambaste or lampoon
them. They should show how others might have proceeded, but not make
derogatory comparisons. They should show how what we are doing might be
improved, but not try to dismiss or crush what we are doing.
"Criticism should not be querulous and
wasting, all knife and root-puller, but guiding, instructive,
inspiring." Ralph Waldo Emerson
"What we ask of him [the critic]
is, that he should find out for us more than we can find out for
ourselves. He must have the passion of a lover." Arthur
"Neither praise or blame is the object of true
criticism. Justly to discriminate, firmly to establish, wisely to
prescribe, and honestly to award. These are the true aims and duties of
criticism." William Gilmore
Constructive criticism is the life blood of
learning. It is all about the questioning of the new and of what is
currently held to be true. Questions in turn are always being critical
of something that is held to be or proposed to be true. The answers are
not enough, the questions are more important. It is the desire to know,
not the knowing, that is the divine spark. As Popper has said, we can
never know that we have found the final truth. Knowledge is theory not
objective reality. Constructive criticism (questions) is how we are
able to improve those theories and how we refine knowledge. It is how
we get closer and closer to the truth or an accurate model of objective
reality. Questions serve two purposes. They pick up flaws in
what is proposed so that it can be improved or replaced. Also they are
the way in which we begin to understand that there is a problem so that
we can formulate that problem.
Ali in the T.V. series "Taken" said it as well as anyone:
"Life, all life, is about asking questions, not
about knowing answers. It's wanting to know what's over the next hill,
that keeps us all going. You have to keep asking questions, wanting to
understand. Even when you know, you will never know the answers, you
have to keep asking questions.
"The formulation of a problem is far more
often essential than its solution." Albert Einstein
"Judge a person by their questions, rather
than their answers." Voltaire
"When you stop learning, stop listening,
stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is
time to die." Lillian Smith
"The scientist is not a person who gives
the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions." Claude
"There are no foolish questions, and no
man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions." Charles
The critic must expect criticism.
It is, of course, easy to be critical when no one
can criticize your criticism, even if that criticism is constructive.
Criticism is or should be a dialogue. It invites further criticism of
itself, as this is the way in which it finds balance, so it can be used
to refine ideas.
problem is in the inability of people to
listen carefully and impartially to criticism of their own ideas, or
adopted ideas they adhere to. To begin to accept and benefit from
criticism we can make it easier by consciously dividing up our theories
into 3 categories by which we can set different standards of personal
involvement towards criticism. The categories are:
Those notions that make up the self
and define the boundaries of the self. (We will protect these at all
cost unless we can logically be convinced we are crazy).
ideas which we really
feel are worth
defending. (We will listen to criticism of such ideas and oppose that
criticism, but be prepared to change such ideas if we can be personally
theories which are not essential to us
in any way. (We will be totally be open to criticism of these and feel
no need to defend them unless we perceive the logic of the criticism to
be flawed. We shall be prepared to change and improve these theories
How to listen to criticism, especially
toxic criticism and learn from it.
It is essential to learn how to listen to
criticism and very hard to do it well. At first, few people are good at
it. People do not become good at it until they they reach the kind of
self confidence in learning that is so evident in self-actualized
people. Be that as it may, the following should be helpful if you make
an effort to follow these instructions taken mostly from "The Artist's
Way at Work" by Bryan, Cameron and Allen:
Hear the criticism
all the way through.
Do not interrupt or defend,
just listen. This is
a very hard thing to do, but when it can be done, it is extremely
effective in opening learning possibilities. It is difficult, because
in our society we have associated the experience of criticism with
pain. We are hurting and we do not want to listen further. The tendency
is to lash out and defend ourselves. It is best to try and refrain from
doing this. Just wait.
Weigh the Criticism.
In the society we live,
most criticism is neither
all toxic nor all constructive. Even the most toxic criticism will have
small gems that are helpful and accurate. Likewise constructive
criticism will often have little hurtful asides, that are not helpful
nor accurate. Once we have heard the criticism, we need to weigh it
against our sense of truth and sort out what is toxic and what is
Let your hurt
feelings rise and subside.
You see all these funny
things in the movies and
surprisingly they all work. Someone may count up to ten or go out and
water the lawn or go for a long walk to cool down. What they are doing
is allowing the emotion of hurt to well up inside them and then
gradually subside. They are allowing anger to cool. This is a way of
deferring the human response till one can think rationally again.
Write out the
After criticism, when a
person has reverted to
state where sensible analysis is possible, it is probably best to write
down exactly what the critic has pointed out. If you do this, it will
better enable you to see exactly what was said and meant. In this way,
what was recommended will not be distorted by faulty memory.
criticism of the criticism.
When you have completed
this accurate record of
the criticism, you can begin to marshal arguments for or against it.
Refrain from being toxically critical of the criticism. Practice being
constructive and accurate in your analysis of the criticism. Be
systematically logical and consistent. Be a good critic.
Show both of
these to someone you
You have written two
documents. When you have
finished writing both documents, you should take them both to someone
you trust and ask them to read through and give their opinion. By
trust, we mean someone who's judgment you go by, not someone you trust
to support you and your actions no matter what. Remember the whole idea
of criticism is to improve your inner self and your work, thus enabling
you to learn from this experience.
When this trusted person
gives his judgment, again
you should listen and not defend or even speak. Even though you trust
this person, anything negative you hear will sting. Again, although you
will want to defend yourself. Try to refrain from doing this.
You can then choose
to argue and
Now you can weigh your
friend's judgment and
marshal what you might want to say in return to the original person's
criticism. Be careful to only defend what was sensible in your original
actions, accepting the criticism that was constructive and accurate. It
is not such a bad idea to record all this before you say anything.
Make a plan as to
how to implement
changes based on the criticism.
Now you know where you were
wrong, so you have to
plan how to take affirmative action as to how to set things right. A
good scheme is to actually write down what you need to do. Set this
down in a series of steps. What to do first, then what to do next and
Now with all the information
needed, it should be
apparent what you did wrong and how to fix it. You even know the order
in which you are going to do it. Ideally you have truly learned from
the criticism, enabling you to fix what was wrong. All that remains is
to do it.
How to get people to be constructive in
If we truly want other people to be
constructively critical of us, our actions and our work, what methods
can we implement to stop them being destructively critical and switch
to being constructive? There are three answers to this.
We can control the context
in which the criticism
occurs. For instance one would hope that among a group of peers such as
a scientific forum people would tend to be more constructive in their
criticism. And for instance a marriage counselor by using his position
can control a couple's criticism of each other, directing their
criticism to become constructive so reuniting a husband and wife at
Every person who criticizes
wants to be heard.
The only way they can know that that they have been heard is if the
person being criticized says something back to them to let the know
that they have been heard. If people feel they are not being heard they
may begin to shout, become abusive and angry and essentially forestall
any chance of the critic becoming more constructive in their criticism.
Part of helping critics to be more constructive in their criticism is
to genuinely listen to the criticism and try to understand it. If you
are able to really listen you can then make use of what you have heard
to defuse the situation. This can be done by reflecting back to the
person the criticism that they have just given you. The most effective
way to do this is to repeat back the criticism, rephrased in your own
words. This is what Thomas Gordon calls active listening. If you can
use this rephrasing often when being criticized you will find that not
only will it have a calming effect on the critic, but it will also
induce a willingness in the critic to listen to what you might have to
say in return.
ask for constructive criticism.
Asking for criticism is paradoxically perhaps the most effective way we
can deflect others from being toxic in their criticism of us. Weisinger
in his book "The Power of Positive Criticism" suggests that in asking
for criticism it is perhaps not a good idea to use the word
'criticism'. Other's negative perception of the word 'criticism' will
cause them to concentrate unnecessarily and exclusively on what you are
doing wrong. Or they may view your request as being sarcastic. Instead
he suggests that we ask them for their thoughts on how you can be more
effective. We also might ask, "What is wrong with this?" Or
alternatively we could enquire, "What can I do to make amends for
If we ask our friends and
constructive criticism, such people are obligated to be helpful. Thus
they will try to be constructively critical. They will be less guarded
and worried about hurting our feelings.
If we ask our opponents and
criticism, they may suddenly see that we are serious in wanting to
improve or make amends, and may even change to wanting to be
constructive in their criticism. They will see we are actually
listening to what they say, and that if they are convincing, they have
an opportunity to change strategy and perhaps convert us to their view.
Manuel J. Smith wrote a
book about self assertion
called "When I Say No I Feel Guilty". In this book he recommends people
to use a technique called 'negative inquiry' to protect themselves from
criticism, thus enabling them to handle it. A person can start off name
calling and generally being unconstructively critical. However in
response to negative inquiry, they can change to become constructively
critical. Negative inquiry is simply asking for more information about
the criticism. For instance, if someone tells you they don't like your
work, ask them to be specific, "What is it about the work that you do
not like?" Or you can ask them why, "Why don't you like this aspect of
the work?" To get them to be constructively critical, you must ask them
for suggestions that could help you fix the problems as they see them.
"How do you think I could improve the work?" After just a few of these
sorts of questions a person who has been toxically critical will
automatically be transformed into someone who is constructively
critical. Thus changing them from being hostile and defensive into
being helpful and interested.
unafraid and open to criticism.
Asking for criticism and negative inquiry, perhaps not unexpectedly,
will also make you yourself more open to listen to the criticism. By
actually listening to constructive criticism, it is possible to learn
something and generate improvements to ideas.
Do not seek constructive criticism or use negative inquiry if all you
want is praise. If you do, you will find that it will be interpreted as
sarcasm. Anything put out in a sarcastic manner creates enmity. This
may lead to your being punched in the nose, have other violence done to
you or at least instigate lasting enemies. Asking for criticism can
only be done out of a genuine need to improve and an interest in what
others think. Getting praise or approval is easy if we ask enough
people, or if we ask those who are likely to tell us what we want to
hear, but it shouldn't be sought after. Usually without being asked,
people will say nice things rather than be too critical.
"People who ask for your criticism want
Somerset Maugham (This is not always
true, but is true often enough to be a frequent source of trouble in
to be constructively critical.
It is essential to prepare and use diplomacy when considering being
critical of others. This is not an easy thing to do well but here are
some recommendations from The book "Criticism Management" by Randy
Be conversant with
your motives. Why
are you criticizing?
Often we are hardly aware
that we have ulterior
motives in criticizing, remembering that the aim of criticism should be
to help the other person. Putting them in their place, or getting back
at them, is not going to help them. Incidentally it might not
be of much benefit to you either. If the underlying motive is solely
some kind of ego assault, it would probably be more productive to take
a deep breath, let emotions subside so that critical content can be
information you need.
Nothing could be worse than
that is unwarranted, undeserved, or based on faulty information. Be
sure to gather all the relevant information you need. Get the facts
straight. It is also a good idea to be aware of any examples of similar
problems or circumstances that have previously occurred. This is not to
demolish your target but to be ready to indicate a pattern if the item
in question is disputed.
Pick the time and
Behaviorists will tell you
criticism will be more effective. However, picking a good time and
place will be much more effective in producing a positive response.
Pick a time when neither you nor the recipient is likely to be tired
and irritable or emotional. Early in the day is probably better than
later. It is also usually best to conduct your criticism in private.
Criticism in front of others is inevitably seen as an attack on
self-esteem. Also try to find a place devoid of noise and other
Become aware of
your own emotional state
and try to envision the emotional state of the recipient.
If you are upset, your
criticism will inevitably
be harsh and demeaning whether you intend it to be or not. This will
also contaminate the state of mind of the recipient, making it more
difficult to be effective. So you must try to moderate your emotional
state and any triggers that might be set off. You should also try to
gauge your audience's emotions. Be sensitive and empathic and as a
general rule avoid being critical when emotions are running high.
Try to envision the
of the recipient.
You must be prepared to
change tactics if the
approach you are using is being read as an ego attack. The time and the
place may also be conceived as contributing to the perception of an
attack. If so be prepared to change them. It might be worth
rehearsing some positive things to say, aware that all people
need to be reassured of their worth and value. Such is more likely to
open the person to acceptance of your criticism.
standards you are expecting
in being critical.
When you criticize you are
always using some
yardstick to evaluate other's action or work. It is essential to good
criticism that the targets are familiar with this yardstick. If they
are not, you are obligated to outline such standards. Obviously you
yourself must stick rigidly and consistently to these standards and not
loose sight of its objectives.
as many different
scenarios as you can conceive.
You should not only rehearse
what you are going to
say in your head, but try also to construct imaginary scenarios of what
the other might say and of how the situation might develop. In this
way, you can build up and rehearse how whole critical conversations
might go beforehand. In dealing with people one should contrive many
dialogue role plays ready for use. From such a position you can vary
these dialogues by changing how the other person might respond to
various points. Thus you can build up and play out a number of
different scenarios that might happen. Be advised, not to only consider
possible negative reactions to the criticism. Be ready for positive
reactions also. What are you going to say after the person says,
"You're right. I should have handled that differently?" Doing this
should also helps you to be more open to the other person's views.
thoughts, perhaps in
Even though you have an idea
how the criticism
encounter is going to proceed, unless you have had prior experience
along these lines you should probably organize your thoughts by writing
down points of the main sequence of events you hope to discuss. Some
people might even like to prepare cards with notes on them similar to
giving a speech. This can be especially useful the first few times you
try it. Even if you have to refer to these cards, it will create the
impression that you are organized and have carefully considered your
comments and presents your criticism as a serious art.
attitude away from win and
lose to 'I win you win'.
With criticism you cannot
really win if the other
person loses. Oh you can win an argument that way but this is hardly a
benefit. With criticism you only really benefit if the other person
benefits. You only win if the other person wins. Truly constructive
criticism is a function of synergy which flows both ways.
Mixing criticism with praise.
When you criticize it is a kind of evaluative
feedback. You are essentially trying to express what the person (in
your opinion) did wrong (criticism). But any informational feedback of
this sort should also include feedback about what (in your opinion) the
person did right (praise). Keep in mind that praise of the person or
even his work or actions has been found to be counter productive by
Carol Dweck and her colleagues. The best kind of praise is that of
effort, perseverance and strategies. But why mix praise and criticism
at all? Because mixing praise and criticism provides many advantages in
facilitating learning if performed in an effective manner. In his book
"The Power of Positive Criticism" Hendrie Weisinger has a lot to say
about how criticism and praise should be mixed as follows:
"You may be one of those who believes
that including some positives when you criticize is a
simple way to soften the blow. To some extent you are right. But there
are several more important benefits of including the merits that help
make criticism productive.
One is that it brings into
awareness what the person is doing right, something we often forget
when we are angry or disappointed and giving a barrage of criticism.
Being aware of a person's merits, whether you express them or not,
allows you to perceive the person in a more positive manner. This keeps
anger and disappointment in check. When you explicitly state the
positives, it conveys that you are aware of and appreciate his efforts.
The recipient's self-esteem is intact, if not enhanced.
A few specifics about the
nature of your positives. First, your positives must be sincere. Giving
a soft-soap job is likely to make matters worse - if you can't come up
with any positives, don't invent them. Also, it's essential that the
positives you are mentioning are important to the recipient. You may
think that telling your secretary her letters are typed neatly is a
positive, but this may be something she takes for granted. For her a
positive may be , 'I liked the way you worked that last line and gave
it a personal touch.'"
to give constructive criticism.
It is essential to learn how to be constructively critical to be able
to yourself learn from criticism. If you are toxically critical of
others, how can you expect others to be constructively critical with
you. Here are some recommendations mostly from The book "Criticism
Management" by Randy Gardner but also some thoughts on criticism found
in Carol Dweck's work as presented in her book "self-theories" and some
from the book "The Power of Positive Criticism"
Remain calm -
continue to monitor your
Clearly you should not begin
to criticize if you
are angry or distressed. You should rather wait until you have calmed
down. Even so you should try to remain an aloof observer to your
emotional state when you start to criticize, as the very act of
criticizing can be emotionally and psychologically taxing. Furthermore,
you will need to remain calm in the face of reactions from the person
you are criticizing. With this in mind you will find it helpful to
focus intently on keeping a calm steady tone and demeanor. The best
antidote for increased emotionality is to continually be aware that you
are, or should be, providing beneficial information, the purpose of
which is to help the person you are criticizing. To keep a lid on
tensions, you might consider pausing in your criticism or interrupt the
dialogue. You can excuse yourself for a moment to find something. This
should enable you to compose yourself before continuing.
Be critical of the
deed not the doer.
Criticize the act not the
actor; the performance
not the performer. Never be critical of the person. If you are
personally critical, you are fostering a condition of learned
helplessness, which is the very opposite of what you should want to do.
What you should want to do is facilitate learning. Telling a person
they are stupid, unintelligent or talentless and incompetent is not
only demotivating, it is also creating a mindset that it is safer not
to try. After all if the person does not try, and if the work is
incompetent, it only reflects the lack of trying and not that the
person is incompetent.
You can be critical of what
the person has done
i.e. their actions or their work or skills. When our work is criticized
constructively, we instinctively recognize that the other person is
trying to find flaws in our work so we can correct them, and make
improvements. People generally receive accurate and constructive
criticism with openness. Even if the criticism is pointed and harsh, we
can accept it as a healing scalpel that is cutting away the dead wood
and disease of our flawed actions. When we hear accurate criticism, we
are relieved, because we realize that it will redirect us to do better.
This is so, because nearly all people want to accomplish a great job.
They want to do the best job they are capable of, and if that means
getting a little criticism, that is a small and necessary
price to pay. Remember the idea is not to inflate yourself at the
other's expense, but to help them improve, grow, excel or recover.
Feedback and be Future
Teresa Amabile's research
has shown that the more
information provided in criticism the more creative the one criticized
will become. The research performed by Deci, Ryan and others has shown
that the more information provided in criticism the more those
criticized become intrinsically motivated. So, not only does the amount
and quality of informative content in criticism tend to overcome our
fear of criticism, but also it increases our intrinsic motivation, and
it increases creativity. However, telling people what they did wrong
will not help them much without an indication of how to do it right.
Learning that we did something aesthetically impoverished or not up to
standard does not, in itself, help us to make it presentable or better.
What we need is, positive feedback that at the very least gives clues
as to how to do it correctly and achieve artistic sensibility. Good
critical direction should assist the person towards fixing future
problems. The problems of the past have already occurred; the goal is
to use the past mistakes and difficulties as tools to prevent
similar occurrences in the future. The future is about what can be done
(instead of what was done) of how to do it better.
effort, persistence and
Even so there are other
special types of
criticism, which when used in conjunction with the above, which will
improve constructive criticism by giving it a motivational impetus,
making it productive. The research of Carol Dweck has uncovered that a
great deal can be improved in a person's capacity to learn by a few
very specific sorts of criticism. First and foremost among these types
of criticism is criticism of effort. When you criticize effort you are
not teaching others to be helpless the way calling them stupid or
talentless does. Instead you are giving them a choice. Either they can
go on not being able to do something or learn something, or they can
apply greater effort and hard work and be able to do or learn those
things. This is criticism the effect of which is to intrinsically
motivate. The same is true when we criticize the persistence of others.
When we tell people that they did not work at something long enough or
persist in the face of failure, we again, are giving people a choice.
If they want be able to do something or learn something they have to
stick at it until they do. Also, this is true if you criticize the
amount and variety of strategies the person used in trying to solve a
problem or do something. Here again you are providing a choice. Either
use more and better strategies so you will succeed or you can continue
to fail. Yet another type of criticism, that this is true of, is
criticism of the challenges the other person has faced. Here again you
are providing a choice to either face more and better challenges or you
can continue to be unable to do the things you wish or nor be able to
learn or understand those things you might wish to.
In his book "The Power of
Hendrie Weisinger tells us how to effectively mix praise and criticism
to produce to very effective learning. This should be considered only
with the proviso that good praise should be about effort, persistence,
strategies etc. Weisinger says:
"The most common
sequence is to begin by
telling the person all the good things he is doing and then catalogue
what is wrong. I have found this approach to be ineffective...
the positives - BUT - state what is wrong.
starts by giving you the positives of what you are doing, the typical
reaction is to think, 'What did I do wrong? Here comes the ax.' You
start to anticipate the negatives to come and begin to plan your
rebuttal prematurely. And, lets not forget that the expectation that
negative will soon come forth elicits negative emotions. Defensive
behavior is brewing...
One reason for
this cognitive response pattern is that people are not used to getting
positives in a work situation. When they do, these positives are
usually followed by negatives... Now the other problem with this method
of criticism: The word but is a negation. Semantically, it tells your
recipient to forget about what she just heard - the positives. She then
hears the negative part of the message...
Let me give you
an an alternative method of giving the merits so that they are heard
and remembered. Instead of starting with the positives, start by
focusing on how the person can improve; then conclude by telling the
person what he is already doing well.
the recipient can improve - AND - state the positive things...
on three points.
The first is that
most people respond positively when you tell them to make something
better. When you tell a person how he can do something better,...your
recipient becomes more eager to hear your pointers.
Second, this format
takes advantage of the fact that people are much more likely to act
productively on the criticisms they receive when they feel good. When
you end your criticism on the upbeat, you are getting the recipient to
experience positive affect, and this good-feeling state translates into
The third point
involves the word 'and.' ...It integrates the preceding statements.
...your recipient is much more likely to think, 'I am doing a lot of
good things, and I can be that much better if I improve on some
others.' ...it helps your recipient realize it's okay not to be
perfect; she does some things well and can improve on others, and this
is pretty good."
Leading the person
to discover their
mistakes and how to fix them through questions.
Sometimes it is possible to
be subtle in our
criticizing, so that the recipient is hardly even aware that they are
being criticized. This can be achieved by means of questioning. This
technique, when it is convenient to use it, has obvious non threatening
advantages. The person is likely to feel much less of a threat to his
self esteem if he feels he has discovered a better way doing things on
his own. In addition, questions as a form of communication, are a much
less threatening to self esteem than accusations or even declarative
statements. Remember, questions do two things. They not only
necessitate information but also convey information. An example of the
use of questions in this way, is the Socratic method, as this was the
way Socrates used questioning to expose contradictions and
inconsistencies. Be advised though, that questions can be used in an
aggressive manner, causing people to look stupid or trip over their own
ignorance. Still it is easier to use questions in a non aggressive way
and this you should endeavor to do.
Stick to the Facts
and be specific.
Be precise and have
specific details as to what
is not working. If you are not completely sure of the facts, you should
not be criticizing at all. Make sure you understand the problem, the
evidence, and the yard stick against which you are measuring the
behavior. Use words that are simple, precise and to the point. Do not
use words that are obscure, or for that matter, use too many words.
Excessive verbiage and unclear words can confuse and obscure an
otherwise simple clear message.
Don't require people to
guess as to how they can
improve but let them have some free rope. Know what it is that you
expect, and convey this to the person you are criticizing. You can
explain exactly how you would prefer them to do things better. Give
examples of what could be done or better yet, give a demonstration of
how to do it.
If you criticize, you should
always believe in
that criticism one hundred percent. How often do people criticize
because they think they are superior and criticism is part of their
role. Others think they are expected to criticize or should criticize
or are worried about what others will say if they don't. Being
authentic means that you say what you really feel. Sometimes we are
critical because the other person has caused us problems. Be aware it
is only your problem not the person's problem. Be sure to use "I
language"; I feel this; this affects me, etc. Being authentic means
talking about how things are affecting you rather than them. If you are
authentic, you cannot help but give good criticism, and only the most
overly sensitive of people will not recognize your good intentions.
Being authentic also prevents the bottling up of emotions that can
cause you to lash out later.
Be Fair, Allow a
Even constructive criticism
can be unfair. People
often criticize before they fully understand what is going on. Being
constructively critical means also being willing to listen to the
person you are criticizing. You must try to understand the situation
from their perspective. Even criticizing from a position of power may
cause people to become defensive, and you must get past that. You need
to keep in focus what is viable in what they are saying so that you can
be fair. Remember criticism invites criticism of itself and this should
be a two way dialogue. Do not use the 'I talk, you listen mode'. If you
enforce a position of power to suppress this reactive criticism, you
may miss important information that will help you better access the
particulars of the situation. Furthermore, you may miss new
information, that could impact and change your entire view of what you
are criticizing. It is not only important to understand the person you
are criticizing but it is often necessary to show that you appreciate
their stance. The easiest way to do this is to repeat back to the
person what they told you preferably using different words.
Make sure they
Ambiguous criticism is of
little help to anyone.
Criticism requires that you get some feedback, verifying that the
person being criticized clearly understands the meaning and
implications. In order to find out whether they understand, listening
to how they react is vital. If they have not understood the criticism,
you need to present it in another way, and keep finding different ways
to present the criticism till you are sure they have comprehended. To
do this well, you need some way of eliciting feedback from the person
being criticized. A word of caution; asking the person being criticized
to repeat back what you have said is probably not a good way to elicit
feedback. If you ask them to do this it will probably be taken
negatively as condescending and anxiety provoking. You need to be more
subtle more like asking that you compare notes or express your concerns
that maybe you haven't been clear enough.
Ask for Assistance.
There is yet another way of
people will find to be non threatening to their self esteem and that is
to ask them for help. This can be especially helpful if you
can do it well, particularly if you are attempting to criticize a
person in a superior position of power or a person who is supposed to
have superior knowledge. Such people usually feel they should be exempt
from criticism from the likes of you. Criticizing by asking for help is
very difficult to do well however, because if done badly, it sounds
sarcastic. The only way to accomplish this well is to sound and be
completely sincere. You can start off with something like, "I'd
appreciate it if I could get your ideas on something that would really
help me out..." If done well asking for assistance is positive and does
not raise defensive shields. When asked for assistance people often are
flattered or feel a sense of reciprocal obligation to be helpful.
There are some people who go through life just
complaining about everything. It does not matter how well things are
done, they will find something to criticize, usually in the most toxic
manner possible. They do not know how to win friends and influence
people. You may think there is no upside here and that you are not
interested in helping this person. In fact you probably will not be
able to change such a person. You can however, use their bad example as
an opportunity to improve your skill at giving and receiving of
criticism. Such averse circumstances can be used to hone your own
skills in a shorter time.
Where can you practice criticism?
Of course, criticism is hotly practiced in the
work place. However, schools, colleges, universities,
debating clubs, symposiums, conventions, workshops and groups of any
sort all use this critical method and are more important for learning,
because they are where most knowledge (world 3) is revised and
improved. While self criticism is possible, and often put to good use,
it is not nearly as effective as the criticism from others, especially
those working in similar fields and those of a like mind.
mutual criticism of scholars.
Lets face it, people are generally lousy at giving and taking
criticism. However in schools, colleges and universities it is the
community of scholars that is so essential to learning, because of the
mutual criticism that it engenders. Although people in learning
communities, rant and rage, and cry and sulk, because they are often
unable to give and take criticism in a constructive way, such
communities are nevertheless essential. When the young bright minds of
the world come together, exchanging and criticizing ideas, then
learning of the most intensive and important sort takes place. This is
the way in which our current knowledge grows and is refined. Just
consider however, how efficient human learning might become, if just a
few more people could learn how to be constructive and effective in
"The strength of criticism lies in the
weakness of the thing criticized." Henry Wadsworth
long learning through criticism.
As stated at the beginning of this page, criticism is the second most
effective tool we can use in learning. By becoming better at giving and
receiving criticism, we not only make learning and teaching more
effective, but also more enjoyable. Making learning enjoyable for
yourself and others means you and others will wish to do more of it.
Ultimately the association of pleasure with learning leads to a life
that is filled with learning. We become, as we should, life long