Everyone is a critic. It’s easy to look around, find the things we disagree with or don’t like and then let loose. With the number of social media outlets and blogs available, it’s never been easier.
And yet, few ever stop and think about what the purpose of a critique is. Is it to let everyone know about a particular point of view that is opposite to another person’s point of view? Is it a dog whistle that signals to a group of likeminded people? Is it a way to show superiority by means of demeaning others? Or is a critique the start of a constructive conversation about what can be done better?
Opposition, dog whistling and demeaning need no further examination as they speak for themselves. However, if a critique is meant to be constructive, it must meet certain criteria.
Who Will Hear You?
For another person to hear your critique, you must be one or more of the following:
Therefore, if your goal is to offer a constructive critique and you are neither an authority nor do you belong to the other person’s ideological camp, then being respectful is the very minimum.
Past or Future Orientation?
Another thing to consider when offering a critique is whether it is past or future oriented. Past orientation can be helpful if the goal is to examine what went wrong. But too much focus on the past usually leads to blaming (which isn’t very helpful unless you’re looking to punish someone for his or her actions). Future orientation, on the other hand, is mostly solution oriented. You can give examples of new behavior or try to figure out together what can be done better next time around.
For example, let’s say someone dropped a jar of pickles on the floor. The constructive approach would be to use past orientation to figure out what happened (your hands were slippery) and then use future orientation to focus on what can be done better next time (dry your hands). The negative way would be to use only past orientation (blame) and add disparaging remarks (you damn idiot).
As a father, I continually try to help my children navigate the world. When they do something ‘wrong’ (in parenthesis here, because sometimes wrong is in the eye of the beholder and I’ve had to apologize because I mislabeled something) then I’d rather that they focus on the future (change their behavior next time) rather than obsess over the past (make them feel bad and say sorry all the time).
Critiquing Can Be Helpful
When done with a constructive outcome in mind, critiquing can be an important component in all manner of relationships (friends, romantic partners, family, co-workers, subordinates, superiors, constituents, public servants, and so on). If we are not willing to critique, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Critiquing can help us correct mistakes, refine processes, be more respectful, and much more.
At Least Be Respectful
So, the next time you are tempted to type a scornful comment, humiliate an ideological opponent or shame someone for making a mistake, remember that you not offering your critique for their benefit. If you were, you'd at least be respectful.
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