Being Critical? Are You Helping or Hurting?
Most of us have heard the expression that a person is “his own worst critic”. We often do not give ourselves enough credit for performing well and regularly beat ourselves up for not performing better.
For some of us it is never good enough, regardless of how well we do.
When we project that same attitude onto others however, we can create some real problems in our relationships with them.
For example, spouses will sometimes complain about feeling criticized by their partners. They might say that they don’t get nearly enough praise for many of the things they do but get sufficiently criticized.
Employees may say the same thing about their employers, frequently feeling criticized but rarely feeling praised, potentially creating a morale problem in the workplace.
Conveying criticism, even if it is meant to be constructive, sometimes borders on an art form.
Many people struggle with their feelings of self-worth, confidence, good looks and general competency. Deep within they may feel vulnerable and, if met with a type of harsh or nonconstructive criticism, can feel hurt and become defensive or put off by such comments.
Why We Criticize
We criticize others and ourselves for many reasons.
We may be angry or frustrated: You may have had a bad day and end up criticizing harshly in a misdirected way of taking out your frustration. This is often done in a reflexive, knee jerk fashion and is almost always regrettable because the criticized person frequently feels unfairly targeted.
We may have an ego problem: Some people want to show how smart or powerful they are by putting others down and criticizing their performance. When arrogance drives criticism it generally serves no constructive purpose whatsoever.
We are simply being hurtful: In this case the motive is vengeance. We have decided that we want to hurt (emotionally) the person we are criticizing. This form of criticism comes from the darker side of our personality. It is not pretty but it does happen.
We may want things done differently: If you are an employer you may want your employee to do a task differently. You may not have been happy with the results in the past and want to change the way things are being done at the workplace.
We may want to help a person to improve: We may give an honest opinion in the form of feedback, wanting to help a person get better at something. When done in a supportive fashion such as offering a suggestion, the criticism may not only be acceptable but can also be appreciated.
Curb Your Criticism
If you are going to criticize someone, think about your reason for doing so.
Are you angry and want to hurt that person? Are you frustrated and want to lash out at someone? Are you showing off? Do you want to help?
Criticism can be constructive and helpful. If you have been accused of being too critical, even hurtful, here are some ways you can improve on the way you deliver your criticisms.
Be Positive: We typically think of criticism as being negative. If stated in a way that points out possible options and supports the person, it can be seen as quite positive.
For example: “I don’t think that couch looks good in that corner” can be restated as, “The room looks good, nice job. What do you think about placing the couch over there”?
If you have thought about your intent for offering criticism and actually want the person to appreciate your idea, then think about stating it in a positive way.
Make a Suggestion: In the example above a question is used to infer a suggestion instead of simply making a critical remark. Criticisms are sometimes perceived as assaults or attacks.
This is especially true when offered to a particularly sensitive person, or one who is likely to feel offended and behave defensively.
This could be done in a conversational way, using the simple question, “Would it be OK with you if I made a suggestion?”
If your intention is to help improve the person’s performance, then engaging in suggestion making rather than criticizing can set a better tone for accomplishing that objective.
Be Specific: Focus on the task or the project when offering your thoughts. Never focus on the person.
If a household budget was the subject for example, a statement like; “You were never very good at math” will not score you points in likeability. If you said that to your child or your spouse they would likely not feel good about themselves or you for that matter.
If however, you were to say; “Budgets can be tricky and if you would like my help I would be happy to help you” you set the tone for dialogue.
Be Compassionate: Recognize how you might feel if someone were to criticize you in a harsh, aggressive or mean-spirited manner. Most of us have a difficult time accepting any kind of criticism, even if it is given with the best of intentions. Make suggestions that come from kindness and are well put or your remarks may get perceived as attacks and result in negative consequences.
If in doubt…wait! If you have an urge to criticize someone and are not sure how to say it or what your real intentions are, wait and think it through before saying anything.
The compelling feeling that you need to say something right at that moment may be driven by one of those negative motives mentioned above. You want to be sure of your intention and what you would like to achieve as your outcome.
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About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work-life balance. He also works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity, careers, and intimacy.