“One mustn’t criticize other people on grounds where he can’t stand perpendicular himself” – Mark Twain
Second week of Lent, second week of Giving Up. This time, we are going to explore giving up Criticism of Others.
We are not just talking about major or deliberate criticism here, but about all forms of criticism including those in which we are unaware we are indulging. Just because we are not aware we are criticising, doesn’t mean it has any less of an impact on the recipient.
I am not referring to those occasions where someone actively solicits your opinion or seeks criticism, although even there we need to be careful. Rather, I am talking about those times when we offer uninvited words, which far from helping can be hurtful and even harmful.
Just imagine that you have completed some task. It doesn’t matter whether it was trivial or huge, nor does it matter how well you completed it; all that matters is that you have done your best. Perhaps you are feeling pleased, or relieved, or any manner of emotions.
Then someone comes along and starts to criticise. They may think they are being helpful with their deconstruction of your efforts, their observations of exactly where you went wrong, and their insistence of how you should have done it better.
But really, how does it make you feel? Probably lousy, right? They’ve sucked the joy out of your achievement and just ruined it. Don’t you just hate that? And yet if you complain, they more often than not point out that they are only trying to help and that YOU’VE hurt THEIR feelings!
This is where someone asks us for our opinion, and we deliberately set out to tell the other person exactly what they did wrong. Boy, can we get REALLY into it! We have a whole list of things they did wrong which, if only they realised them, would make them better next time. And so we launch, uninvited, into a lengthy tirade about all of their flaws and mistakes; no flaw is too small to escape criticism.
The thing is, no matter how well-intended our criticism might be, one thing is for sure – it hurts the other person. Oh, we might think we are helping them, but generally all they will here is an attack on them, listing loads of ways in which they failed. Not very helpful!
The thing is, when someone asks “So, what did you think?”, the vast majority of the time what they are actually seeking is some reassurance that they didn’t totally suck. You can be sure that inside their head they are beating themselves up over every minute detail; if you tell them all the things they got wrong (even if you dress it up by saying it is constructive criticism for improvement), they’ll just see that as vindication of their own view that they failed. A few kind words will work wonders.
Now, that doesn’t mean you lie to them and say everything was perfect! Rather, offer a couple of things that went well, things which perhaps they didn’t realise.
If they really want some constructive criticism, they will let you know. Telltale phrases to watch for include “How could I improve?”, or “What would make me better at it?” or similar. Even here, we serve them far better by avoiding rushing in with a long list of damning observations. Rather, start off by offering some positive comments about what they did, before offering a single point for improvement. Why just a single point? That gives the other person one single clear area upon which to focus, making it easier to improve.
Beware negative phrases such as “I was rubbish wasn’t I?”, however – that’s a definite sign that some positive comments are needed!
This can be just as nasty and destructive, made all the more so by the fact that our view wasn’t even sought by the victim of our criticism. This sort of criticism tends to fall into two categories –
This is where we vent our criticism directly to the person. Sometimes we may believe we intend it to be constructive and helpful, but the reality is that just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, likewise uninvited direct criticism is never helpful. You don’t know what is going in for the other person – in their life in general nor in their head right now. One place where I worked, one young lad used to wear clothes which, whilst not scruffy, had certainly seen better days and weren’t a particularly good fit. Of course, one day the “office loudmouth” pointed this out to him in her customary abrasive and tactless manner. When others pointed out it wan’t a nice thing to say, she retorted that she was only trying to help. Of course, what she didn’t know was that this poor young man had virtually no money, and the money he earned from his job was pretty much all going to help pay for his family’s upkeep (his father had run away, leaving his mum to look after him, his younger siblings, and the house, all with no job). So of course he could not splash money on brand new clothes just for work, no matter how much he had wanted to. With all that in mind, how do you think the office loudmouth’s uninvited “constructive” criticism helped him? You can imagine how much worse it made him feel.
That’s the thing with uninvited criticism – the recipient is not even in a position to receive it because they are not expecting it, and we certainly know even less about their situation. It serves no positive benefit.
The final category, indirect criticism. Here there is never even any pretence at justifying it. Now, I know that this is not something in which you indulge, and by becoming increasingly aware of it we can see it being exhibited by others and be on the lookout for it and maybe even help to prevent it from happening.
Sometimes it is said indirectly when the person is present – catty remarks or put-downs delivered not to the person, but when it is known they are within earshot. Let’s be honest here – that is not criticism, it is actually a form of bullying.
The other form is when people talk and criticise about someone “behind their back”. Gossip is the usual term for this form of criticism, which never comes from a place of care or concern for the individual, but either from a place of wanting to feel superior, or from a place of bullying by seeking to turn people against the individual concerned. Nasty stuff!
The next time you have the opportunity (or urge) to offer criticism, pause and ask yourself – “Is this about helping the other person to grow, or is this just about me venting frustration?”.
Only ever offer criticism if it has been explicitly asked for, and even then only offer it if you are sure they want to know where to improve, rather than seeking reassurance.
By giving up the need to criticise others, for whatever they may or may not have done, we begin to free ourselves from judgement, we become more relaxed when things occur outside of our control, and over time we become more liked and respected – when people know we are not going to slam them with criticism, they are more likely to want to associate with us.
So what do YOU think? Leave a comment and let me know!