By Leo Babauta
Can you give someone criticism without hurting their feelings or making them angry? Can you do it kindly?
I think that’s a difficult proposition for most people, but in truth it’s possible to give criticism with kindness and have a decent chance of having the person take it constructively.
Last week, it seems that my post on How to Accept Criticism with Grace and Appreciation struck a chord with many people. It seems that most of us have a hard time accepting criticism without getting hurt or angry or defensive … and just as many of us have a hard time giving criticism without making others hurt or angry or defensive.
Today, we’ll look at how to give criticism with kindness, so that the person who receives it is more likely to take it well.
We’ll also look at why criticism is often the wrong approach to take: positive suggestions are even better.
Why We Give Criticism
I think it’s important to step back and look at why people give criticism. There are a few common reasons (although there are many more possible reasons):
- To help someone improve. Sometimes criticism is actual honest feedback, meant to help the person we’re criticizing. We want to help them get better.
- To see a change that we would like. If we regularly read a magazine or blog, for example, there might be something that often bothers us that we’d like to see changed. Perhaps the person uses too many list headlines, or has too many spelling and grammatical errors. So criticism is meant to help get that change enacted.
- To further the discussion. Criticism can be a way to get a good, intelligent discussion about something going, to take it to a new level, to explore new areas of the discussion, to give an opposing viewpoint, to impart new knowledge.
- To hurt someone. Often we just don’t like someone, and want to get at them, attack them. Criticism in this case is destructive.
- To vent our frustrations. Sometimes we are just frustrated with something, or are having a bad day, and need to vent that negative anger.
- To boost our ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, doing an Alpha Male thing.
Before you offer criticism, consider your reasons. If your reason is one of the first three, then this article is for you. If it’s one of the second three reasons, you won’t get anything out of this article. If that’s the case, I suggest you stop yourself and think long and hard about why you feel the need to do that.
Using criticism to help someone improve, to see a change affected, or to contribute to a discussion, are all good reasons for doing it. Now the question is, how to do it kindly, without attacking, so that your purposes are accomplished.
Why Criticism Hurts or Angers
People don’t often take criticism well, even if it’s done for good reasons (one of the first three reasons above, for example). But why? Why can’t they just simply see it as a way to improve?
Well, there are many reasons, of course, but here are just a few:
- The criticism is mean-spirited. If you use insulting or degrading language, or put down the person in any way, they will focus on that, and not on the rest of the criticism.
- It focuses on the person. If you focus on the person (“You’re a lousy writer”) instead of their actions, you will make them angry or defensive or hurt.
- They assume you’re attacking them. Even if you focus on actions, many people take all criticism as an attack on themselves. No matter what your intention or language. They can’t take criticism in a detached, non-personal way. You can’t change that about them, other than pointing them to last week’s article (which will also probably be taken as an attack).
- They assume they’re right. Many people assume what they say or do is right, and that the criticism is wrong. They don’t like to hear that they’re wrong, whether it’s true or not.
Now, there are other reasons, but I wanted to point out a few of the most common. You cannot change some of these things about the person receiving the criticism. You can try, but your success rate probably won’t be very great.
However, you can change your actions — how you communicate the criticism. Or whether you criticize at all.
How to Deliver Criticism Kindly (and Not Criticize At All)
Looking at the above reasons that criticism isn’t taken well, the keys are:
- Don’t attack attack, insult, or be mean in any way
- Talk about actions or things, not the person.
- Don’t tell the person he’s wrong.
- Don’t criticize at all.
But … what about giving kind criticism? How do you help someone improve, see the changes you want, or contribute to a meaningful discussion?
By offering a specific, positive suggestion instead.
So instead of criticizing, which is rarely taken well, offer a specific, positive suggestion. Let’s take a look at the elements of this method, why it works, and how to do it:
- Suggestion, not criticism. As people sometimes will assume that you’re attacking them personally, no matter how nice your criticism and how much you focus on actions, a criticism is often not the way to go if you want 1) for them to improve; 2) to see actual change; or 3) to contribute to a meaningful discussion. Instead, suggest a change. A suggestion can be positive, it can be seen as helpful, it can be seen as an instrument for improvement and change. People often take suggestions well (but not always). So a suggestion is more useful than a criticism in many cases. Not always — sometimes it can be useful to give a nice criticism if someone is open to it. But in many cases, a suggestion is better.
- Positive. Much criticism is negative. That hurts the discussion, because things can take an ugly turn from there. It hurts the person receiving it, making it less likely that they’ll take it as a way to change. Instead, be positive: “I’d love it if …” or “I think you’d do a great job with …” or “One thing that could make this blog even better is …”. And don’t do it in a sarcastic way … be genuinely positive. This keeps the discussion positive, and people are more likely to receive it in a positive way.
- Specific. It’s easy to give vague criticism: “You’re a sucky writer,” “I can’t stand this blog,” or “You really should write better posts … this one is lame.” Anyone can do that. Being specific is more difficult: “I don’t like to see numbers in your headlines all the time,” “The first two paragraphs of your posts are long and rambling,” or “Your face is lumpy.” It’s harder still to make a specific, positive suggestion: “I’d love to see more images of kittens on Zen Habits,” or “Make my day and write a post about how to criticize your boss without him knowing you’re doing it,” or “I would appreciate fewer ads and more content.”
- Be kind. It’s important that you be gentle and kind in your suggestions. People have a hard time accepting any criticism, gentle or not, but if it’s harsh, it’ll almost always have bad consequences. Instead, ask yourself, “Would I like to hear that about myself?” And: “If so, what would be the nicest way to say it?”
- Relate to actions. Never criticize the person. Always criticize the actions. And when you’re making suggestions, make suggestions about actions, not about the person. Not: “Maybe you could become a less lumpy person?” Better: “I suggest you get face smoothener … it did wonders for me!”