The Modern Survival Guide #67
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. However several people have told me, in quite explicit terms, that my views suck… which I find hurtful but useful, because criticism is one of the most important things we can encounter in life. It’s just a shame it’s so damn hard to give properly.
We all know the problem here, right? I’M FRIGGING RIGHT. That’s what our brains say, in all caps, whenever we are directly contradicted. Some people’s brains scream this loud enough that they actually feel physiological side effects — flushed skin, heightened adrenal responses, butterflies in the stomach, things like that. Some people’s brains scream in anger, some in panic, some in sadness, but we all feel something when someone attacks one of our viewpoints.
Because that’s what criticism is. No getting around it. Someone criticizing you is attempting to rewrite one of your decisions, which by default is part of your worldview. Someone giving criticism is trying to modify… you. Kinda weird to think about it that way, right? But it’s true enough. Our actions, our decisions, our opinions are us. So it’s no wonder that giving criticism is very, very tricky — if you want to actually get through to the other person, anyway!
This, then, is the difference between criticism and constructive criticism. Criticism creates enemies. Constructive criticism is an integral and valuable part of good relationships. My critics are people who I dislike and who dislike me. My constructive critics are the people who make sure I do things well, because they like me and want me to succeed.
This article is about constructive criticism, and it is an art form. There are tactics and tricks to follow, sure, and I’ll roll out a few of them here, but it’s all going to come down to reading the other person and modifying your strategy on the fly. I can’t teach that; I’ve barely learned it myself. But I can pass along some of the basic strategies I’ve picked up over the years. And it all starts with simple enough concepts: trust, compliments, tone, value, and knowing when to quit.
One last point — this is an article for adults, about adults. There are different methodologies for criticizing children and teens. So with that caveat, let’s dive in.
If you want to give constructive criticism, the other person has to trust you first. Seems obvious now that I’ve said it, right? Because if they don’t trust you, they won’t give a damn what you have to say; we don’t take advice from people we don’t trust.
Don’t get it twisted, though, this doesn’t mean they have to trust you with everything; they just have to trust that you have something of value to contribute, or that you’re going to do right by them, or that you’re an expert in your field — they have to trust that you know what you’re talking about and have some reason to pass valid information to them.
Now for the art: I can’t tell you how to get a particular person to trust you. You’re going to have to figure that one out on your own. I can tell you some common triggers, though:
- Incentives — if you can convince someone that you have something to gain by offering criticism, they might be more likely to trust.
- Tribalism — if you can convince someone you’re both on the same side, they may be more likely to trust.
- Friendship — long association under favorable conditions can garner a fair amount of trust.
- Love — with any luck you trust the people you love; if you don’t, I would advise you to recall that love is a choice.
- Expertise — although this isn’t as reliable as it used to be (thanks, Information Age), we tend to trust experts more than we trust random strangers.
If the target of your criticism doesn’t trust you, don’t bother. Any criticism you could give would be instantly interpreted as nothing more than an attack. In that situation, do like your grandma said and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
I’ve always found it useful to butter people up before trying to tear down their worldviews. Actually there are very few situations in life where you can go wrong with a compliment, and giving constructive criticism definitely is not one of them. Making sure that people know you think highly of them is a good first step in giving criticism because it softens the blow; if you think of a person’s mood like a barometer, giving a compliment raises the bubble and giving criticism drops it. If you get it just right, the other guy ends up back where they started in terms of their mood.
And why is mood important? Well, as should come as no surprise to anyone at all, your mood is a factor in your receptivity to negative information. Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for a scientific study that confirmed the obvious.
Criticism is always negative information, so keeping the other person in a good mood is important if you want them to take the criticism and do something useful with it.
Now for the art: I can’t tell you exactly how to compliment a particular person. Some people don’t react all that well to compliments. I’m one of them; too many compliments make me intensely uncomfortable. And some people go absolutely over the moon for compliments; you should tailor your approach appropriately. Then there’s the type of compliment you use; sometimes you might need a light touch, other times you might come out with a brown nose. It all depends on the person.
Still, here are some tips to giving a compliment:
- Pay attention — you have to know stuff about a person before you can pick out something they do or one of their characteristics that you like.
- Be specific — insincere compliments are often nebulous and undirected; people know this, so pick something specific to talk about.
- Be sincere — put on your serious face (or at least a nice smile) and look people in the eye (or at least in the face) when you compliment them, and avoid sarcasm or backhanded compliments.
- Explain an impact — tell the other person how their actions or personality positively affected you and/or others.
- Praise in public — give compliments in front of a group if you can; we’re hardwired social primates and a public compliment just feels good.
Giving a compliment is a great first step in the criticism process, but be careful: don’t get the reputation of someone who only gives compliments as a prelude to criticism. Make like Pavlov and go with partial reinforcement.
The thing about constructive criticism that makes it tricky is that a good critique is an attack on position without being an attack on a person. That might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s actually a great honking big one. Someone attacking my position is disputing an opinion, decision, or action I’ve taken. I can deal with that. Someone attacking me is contradicting my right to have an opinion, to make a decision, to act. And that is unacceptable.
So — you have to make sure you target a position if you want to engage in constructive criticism. And that actually comes down to a lot of intangible factors, but the biggest one by far is probably your tone.
I don’t just mean your tone of voice. I mean your facial expression, your body language, the setting in which you are speaking with the other person — all the stuff that goes into the atmosphere of the situation. You need to account for all of that if you plan on giving criticism that is received and understood.
So, some general tips to set the tone:
- Sincerity is good, sarcasm is bad — sarcasm is deliberate insincerity, and you want to be sincere when giving criticism. Leave no doubt about the bits where you are being serious.
- Positive voice and body language are key components — keep your voice serious but not aggressive, friendly but not flippant, calm but not lazy. Think “therapist voice.” Don’t loom, and be careful about leaning forward. Keep your hands either in your lap or mobile without being intrusive of the other person’s personal space.
- Use questions — declarative statements make people dig in, questions make people think.
- Location, location, location — again, mood is a factor, so don’t pick a spot that will sour the mood, and thereby the tone of the event.
- Privacy is critical— praise in public, criticize in private. We’re social animals, and if you want to give constructive criticism you gain nothing by creating a public dominance spectacle.
Now for the art: this is a very generic set of tactics, because the exact tone you use will change radically from person to person. Some people really do need to be yelled at; they respect the conflict. Some people would prefer a critique session to take place in a closed room with the lights off, or over the phone, because the shame of even seeing the other person would be a brand on their mind. It’s totally different person to person, so know your audience.¹
All constructive criticism should be delivered with the intention of imparting value — that is, changing an action, decision, or opinion for the better. Constructive criticism isn’t about tearing down, it’s about building up in a different direction. To that end, a successful critique is phrased using value statements focused not on what went wrong, but what could be better.
For example, if I were to say to someone, “Bill, that idea about building a monorail through your small town is a dumb, stupid, boondoggle of a thought; it’s a bad idea and you should feel bad,” guess what’s going to happen? Bill’s not going to like me much, and the monorail is probably still going to get built.
Instead, I should say something like “Bill, have you considered the long-term fiscal implications of the monorail project? We might not be able to afford it. What about building a trolley instead? It’s like a monorail, but closer to the ground and it’ll cost a quarter as much. I know this is important to you and I want to help your light rail project succeed.”
The first statement was dismissive and arrogant. It attacked Bill’s idea without giving a rationale and without providing alternatives. It attempted to remove Bill as an actor. These are all bad tactics. The second statement was much better; it invited Bill to a discussion, not a fight. It presented a viable reason why his idea might not be the best, but it presented it in a fashion that asked his opinion and encouraged him to engage in thought, not just hunker down. And it retained elements of Bill’s original idea, but modified in a way that makes more sense.
There are some common themes in these kinds of value statements:
- Be polite — we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again, don’t put the other person on the defensive with overly rude language.
- Be supportive — a good constructive critique is presented as if you are on the other person’s side; “help me help you” is a common trope.
- Be specific — have distinct, tangible reasons why your critique should hold water.
- Solve a problem — don’t just offer reasons why a particular option will fail, offer solutions to help the core concept succeed.
- Encourage a discussion — keep the other person talking. If at all possible try to get the vibe towards “brainstorming” rather than “arguing.”
And again, this process is very particular to the individual. Some people might want you to be more aggressive in your approach. Others might go hide in their room if you so much as raise an eyebrow at their idea.
Know When to Quit
Last but not least, know when it’s time to quit. Most people can only stand criticism for just so long before it starts to cause them near-physical pain, and even the most value-laden constructive criticism just sounds like nagging after a while. So read your audience and know when it’s time to bug out. Some common signs include:
- Eye rolls — when someone starts rolling their eyes at you, your statements are no longer being received in a constructive fashion. Time to quit.
- Mindless interjections — if someone says “uh huh” to you eight time in a row, or otherwise indicates that they’re no longer paying attention, it’s time to quit.
- Closed body language — if someone ducks their head, crosses their arms and legs, and turns slightly away from you… yeah, they are no longer a receptive audience and it’s time to quit.
- Displacement activity — someone repeatedly checking their phone or calendar while you talk at them has probably checked out of the conversation. At this point it’s time to quit and save your effort.
- Hostile tones or language — aggressive tones and language usually mean that the other person is reacting defensively and digging in on their position. Once this gets going, it’s time to quit; your suggestions are no longer being received.
Knowing when to quit is (I know, broken record here) totally dependent on the individual. Sometimes you can re-engage with the person; sometimes not. Sometimes the person will just need to be defensive for a second to re-orient on their position; sometimes it means they think you’re the devil. Do your best to know your audience, and don’t be surprised if you do everything in this guide and someone still tunes you out. People are like that — unpredictable and sometimes mean-spirited. Don’t let it get you down.
Summing Up: Healthy Criticism
Some amount of constructive criticism in our day-to-day lives is a healthy thing. It keeps us sane, rational, and checked into the world. I think that we should be somewhat critical of each other from time to time; we should request it and welcome it, so long as the criticism is constructive and so long as we are prepared to think about it.
However, there will be times when we simply are not in the mood to be critiqued. In most cases, that’s a position that we can ask others to respect… at least for a while. If you want to go through your whole life without a single moment of criticism, you are going to be disappointed. You will also almost certainly turn out to be an asshole. But it’s ok to tell a well-meaning friend or family member that, “Look, I know you mean well, I respect your opinion, and I want to listen to your concerns, but I just am not in the right mental place for this conversation right now.”
Just remember: you can’t get away with that forever, and you shouldn’t want to. It is partly through criticism that we learn and grow as human beings; it’s how we find things out about the world and the people around us that run counter to our own expectations. That’s a very good thing. It’s worth remembering that the world doesn’t give a crap what we think about it, it just keeps right on going, and our primary survival trait is adapting to it. It is therefore a major survival advantage to be good at giving and receiving constructive criticism.
So establish trust, butter people up, set the right tone, give good value, and quit while you’re ahead. Critique away, and with any luck you’ll wind up in a place where you can be critiqued in return.
¹Some people like to think that criticism should be delivered like a drill sergeant yelling at new recruits, and unless that’s what their audience needs, they are wrong. These are generally people who just get a kick out of kicking others; mild to moderate sociopaths, in other words. Remember, drill sergeants yell for a reason. They are executing a script specifically designed to break and remold their charges, because that’s a key component of army indoctrination and training — they are intentionally creating a stressful situation to prove to the recruits that they can get through it. This is rarely your responsibility as an adult dealing with other adults, and anyway by the time they’re in their 30s most adults have already been partially broken by life and don’t need your help in that process.