Three Questions to Ask Before you Start Criticizing
by Michael Hidalgo
As anyone who’s spent any amount of time on the Internet knows, we do not need more criticism in our world today.
It’s easy to criticize anyone or anything. This is compounded with the fact that we can offer criticism on nearly anything—even this article (see comment section below).
We don’t need more criticism, but we do need better criticism.
It’s worth noting those frequently found with words of criticism on their lips are often not worth engaging. I say this because their first inclination is to judge. And those who judge too quickly are often closed and negative.
However, the opposite is just as true. Those who occasionally share fair criticism displaying wisdom and insight are worth engaging all the time. These are men and women whose first inclination is to learn. And those who wish to learn are hopeful, open and humble.
Criticism can serve as a building block or a wrecking ball. We need to treat it with great care.
Telling the difference between these two types of critics is important because criticism can be a wonderful teacher if we are open to it. I say, “can be” because there are few things in this world I have both learned more from and reacted poorly to than criticism. There have been many times when my work or I have been criticized by others, and I have found myself open to the words offered me. But then there are other times when my work or I have been criticized and I launch into a combative, defensive attitude.
And I know I am not alone. Many of us struggle mightily with criticism even though we know it is a great teacher. This is precisely why I believe we need better criticism. Criticism can serve as a building block or a wrecking ball. We need to treat it with great care.
There are certainly a number of things that can be a catalyst for better criticism. My hope is to ask a few questions to start a conversation about improving how we offer criticism. Below are three questions we can ask ourselves before we give criticism and when we receive criticism.
Is This About Being Better or About Being Right?
The first thing to remember when giving criticism is that it should not be not about us. The best criticism I have ever received is only concerned with making my work or me better. It may sound odd to say, but the best criticism is selfless.
Those who share selfless criticism have no desire to be proven right or gain high ground. Their chief desire is to see us be better. Not long ago, a close friend sat and shared some hard things with me. He challenged some of my presumptions and attitudes. Nothing in him wanted to be proven right, but everything in him wanted me to be better.
His heart in the matter did not make receiving the criticism easy – I’m not sure it’s ever easy – but it did make it possible to listen to what he had to say.
This should be our first filter before we ever offer criticism. Sure, there will be things that come our way with which we disagree or think are terrible. But before we open our mouths, we must ask, “Do I feel compelled to say something because I want to make this person, this work or this situation better?”
Is This Criticism or Attack?
Good criticism sticks to the issues at hand. Even if we offer critique to a brother or sister directly about him or her, we should never move toward labeling, name-calling or blame.
I cannot count the number of times I have seen others attack or blame someone in the name of criticism. As soon as we move beyond the work, beliefs or attitudes one holds to judging another’s character or motives, we have gone too far.
This kind of thing is everywhere. Log on to Facebook or Twitter, and scroll through some of the comments surrounding a theological or political issue. How quickly do we abandon the issues and attack one another? This is never helpful.
I have yet to meet someone who has been called a derogatory name who remains interested in listening. I am not aware of anyone who desires further conversation after being unfairly labeled or wrongly accused. As much as this is true, we continue to do this time and again.
Even if we offer critique to a brother or sister directly about him or her, we should never move toward labeling, name-calling or blame.
Before we offer criticism we should ask, “Am I addressing the work or attitude, or am I attacking the person?” There is a world of difference in that, and if we are able to discern the difference, we will take another step toward better criticism.
Is it Only About What is Wrong?
The third thing to remember when giving criticism is to speak of what has been done well. The worst criticism only emphasizes everything that is wrong. This is little more than tearing something down with no intention of rebuilding. Contrast that with the criticism that emphasizes how to build on what is already there.
One of my good friends is a talented author. When I completed the rough draft of my second book, I asked her to review it. Honestly, I was terrified with how badly she would shred it. She did shred it, but that was not all she did.
She took time to walk through why she made certain comments, what I could do better and what I had done well. Her honest feedback left me with work to do and things to improve rather than a manuscript filled with red ink.
Before we offer criticism, we must always remember we have an opportunity to encourage one another to move forward. We can point out what they have done well and explain how they can improve things that can be done better. We should ask, “Am I talking about more than only what is wrong?”
If we are able to do these things, we may well be on our way to better criticism. Which just may mean, in the end, all of us will be the better for it.