2011-12-04

The art of giving and taking criticism

Update 2011-12-09: section “A hierarchy of disagreeing”

This post provides a few rules that help with giving and taking criticism.

Giving criticism

Quoting “There’s No Such Thing as Constructive Criticism” by Tony Schwartz for Harvard Business Review:
The problem with criticism is that it challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged. As Daniel Goleman has noted, threats to our esteem in the eyes of others are so potent they can literally feel like threats to our very survival.

The conundrum is that feedback is necessary. It's the primary means by which we learn and grow.

The three rules that Schwartz gives are brilliant. Paraphrased:
  1. Don’t criticize if you feel your own values are threatened. Figuring out when that happens is difficult, because we often don’t know what threatens us or why we feel threatened. A useful clue is feeling uneasy about something. This uneasiness can be disguised as a righteous cause. Note that I’m not saying that such causes don’t exist, but you need to be aware of your own motivations, before you accuse others.
  2. Make sure that you don’t threaten someone else’s values.
  3. Don’t think you are right about something. You never have all the facts. Ever.
There is always an element of violence in criticizing others. You tell them that they are wrong. You might think that you are helping, but that never takes away the violence. An alternative to criticizing is asking questions. That works especially well if your own life isn’t directly impacted by what someone else does and you can actually afford to be laid back about it (god knows that even then, we aren’t always). Compared to telling the other person that they are stupid, a key benefit is that you don’t look like an idiot if it turns out that you were wrong or misunderstood something. Chances are that you just don’t know why someone does something differently from what you consider best. They might even already have thought about your suggestion, but dismissed it for various reasons (no time, not a priority, will do it later, etc.).

Taking criticism

Whenever you expose your own acts of creativity to the world, you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position: Now anyone can take them apart and criticize them (and – by proxy – you). The dangers are increased by the fact that many people enjoy putting other people’s achievements down. So how do you cope with that?
  • Focus on the benefits you reap: Seeking a larger audience is the only way of getting as much useful feedback as possible. You get to know ideas that are different from yours, often radically so – it’s impossible to come up with those ideas on your own. So, for very selfish reasons, you should love criticism, it’s a competitive advantage.
  • Ask the other party to be specific: Much criticism is initially sweeping and general. Such criticism can make you feel incredibly bad, because there is nothing that can be refuted. It especially affects people who are highly critical of themselves. General criticism isn’t worth anything. But there is an easy way to react to it, to turn it into something useful: Ask the other party what specifically they don’t like, what concrete suggestions they have for improving things. The latter puts the ball back in their court and forces them to be constructive. In most cases, you won’t hear back.
  • Remember that it’s hardly ever personal. The more hostile the criticism, the less it is about you and the more it is about the criticizer’s issues. They have seen something in you or your work that they can’t handle.

A hierarchy of disagreeing

Paul Graham’s “How to Disagree” [suggested by David Bruant] lists ways in which people disagree. This is useful to check whether people (including yourself) stick to the facts or are just rambling unproductively:
  • DH0. Name-calling: “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!”
  • DH1. Ad Hominem: Attack the person instead of their arguments.
  • DH2. Responding to Tone: Criticizing how something is said instead of what.
  • DH3. Contradiction: Stating the opposite without arguing your case.
  • DH4. Counter-argument: First level of convincing disagreement. Contradiction plus reasoning. Problem: It’s not always about what the author really wrote.
  • DH5. Refutation. Provide a counter-argument against something that the author actually wrote. Ensures that you have actually read what the author wrote.
  • DH6. Refuting the Central Point. Refute the author’s main point. More effective than refusing a minor point. It usually helps if one mentions what one thinks that the author’s main point is. Even DH5 can still be a subtle variation of an ad hominem attack – choosing something such as incorrect numbers or grammatical mistakes to discredit the author. With DH6, that possibility is gone.
I do think, however, that the tone is part of one’s message and can’t be completely ignored. But the given list makes it easier to figure out what kind of discussion one is having.

Related reading

  1. Dealing with hostile people
  2. Dealing with demanding people

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