What do you think of people who descend on their friends like vultures, criticizing, maligning, ridiculing, scorning, blaming, insulting, and belittling them? Actual vultures feed on carrion, but these human vultures pick their friends apart while they are still alive. Our family members are supposed to be our closest friends, yet even they may engage in the same malicious tactics. It’s time to impose a cease-fire, and the best way to start is to become aware of our actions and to accept responsibility for them.
When we criticize another, we do not expose them, we expose ourselves. We broadcast our own weakness and smallness. For as someone else once wrote, “The most censorious are generally the least judicious, or deserving, who, having nothing to recommend themselves, will be finding fault with others. — No man envies the merit of another who has enough of his own.”
What would you think if I were to tell you that I’m an extraordinary person? Would you be impressed? Not at all, you would think that I’m vain or delusional. So, rather than boasting about our own greatness, we disguise what we wish to say by criticizing others. In other words, speaking about the inferiority of others is just a clever way to speak about our own superiority. Yet, those who are genuinely superior don’t speak about it, and those who BELIEVE they are inferior, pretend to be otherwise.
This being the case, aren’t our criticisms misdirected? Don’t we need to rechannel our energy? Our time would be spent much more productively if we would practice self-criticism (self-improvement) instead of attacking others. How can we see the faults of others so clearly, unless we share the same weaknesses? Let’s take advantage of this clarity of vision by eliminating our own faults. When we do so, we will no longer need to pretend we are worthwhile, and we will, therefore, stop criticizing others.
Does this mean all criticism is bad? Not at all. But it should be used in two cases only. First, parents, teachers, supervisors, and others in authority have the obligation to correct the faults of those they are responsible for. Second, we can offer our advice to friends and others who ASK for it. But don’t offer it unless they request it. Whether it’s those we are responsible for or our friends, we must always frame our suggestions in a positive or constructive manner. What is the difference between constructive and destructive criticism? What we normally mean is your criticism of me is destructive and my criticism of you is constructive. But, of course, that is not what I mean here. To clarify, I offer the following guidelines for constructive criticism.
1. Be particularly careful when your friends ask for advice. Before offering any, be sure that is what they really want. Often, when friends ask for guidance all they want is someone to listen. They want to arrive at their own solutions by bouncing their ideas off you. Or, they may have already decided on a course of action and want you to agree with them. In other words, they’re not looking for advice, but looking for support. Be sensitive to their needs.
2. Use a carrot, not a whip. Use praise, not criticism. Here’s what Charles M. Schwab (1862 ~ 1939) had to say on the subject, “In my wide association in life, meeting with many and great men in various parts of the world, I have yet to find the man, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.”
3. Be a coach, not a critic. Offer support, not criticism. Edmund Burke (1729 ~ 1797) explains, “Applaud us when we run; Console us when we fall; Cheer us when we recover.”
4. Before beginning, think of your own weaknesses. This will help you to frame everything more gently. Follow the sage advice of the Chinese, “Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend’s forehead.”
5. Start on a positive note. First explain what they are doing right and what you like about their behaviour. And follow this with suggestions on how they can do even better. Assure them that you are confident in their ability.
6. Don’t expect from others what you are not willing to do or believe.
7. When you have to deal with people that others are complaining about, first get their side of the story before criticizing.
8. Take special care before criticizing those who lack the power to defend themselves.
9. Evaluate those under your care not by their present level of excellence, but by the distance they have already travelled and can continue to travel.
10. Consider your counsel unsuccessful unless the person leaves feeling they have been helped.
11. Judge their actions not by what you thought, but by what they thought. It is not the action as much as it is the intention that needs to be considered. Use the same standard that you use to judge yourself. Too often, we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our ideals, aspirations, and good intentions.
12. Offer them an opportunity to save face. Don’t trap them in a dead end. Give them an escape route.
13. Follow the advice offered in the Native American proverb, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
Let’s return to the subject of destructive criticism. Because of the harm we can do, don’t look for an opportunity to criticize, for as the Yiddish proverb says, “If you’re out to beat a dog, you’re sure to find a stick.” On the other hand, if you’re out to befriend a dog, you’re sure to discover its desirable traits. Since we find what we look for, let’s look for the positive. This way everyone benefits.
Criticism makes us a thief. We steal the dignity of the person we criticize and rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from them. Imagine how many great ideas have been lost because of gifted people who were afraid of being laughed at.
When we look at an iceberg, we see only a small part of it. And when we look at others, it is rare indeed that we see any deeper than the surface. Isn’t this one of the reasons why it is so easy to criticize? If we can penetrate the heart of others and feel their pain, fear, and loneliness, how can we be critical? Rather than judging others, let’s appreciate them. For as Mother Teresa (1910-1997) said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Let’s master the best type of criticism there is: self-criticism. The American Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike (1913 ~ 1969) explained why, “A man needs self-acceptance or he can’t live with himself; he needs self-criticism or others can’t live with him.” Finally, the thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’di (c. 1213 ~ 1291) wrote, “Whoever is aware of his own failing will not find fault with the failings of others.”