When You Criticize Someone, You Make It Harder for that Person to Change
How many times were you criticized for an opinion or a certain behavior only to uphold the same trait with renewed vigor and stubbornness, just to spite the person who criticized you?
How many times did you criticize someone else for their behavior or opinion and how many times did that make them persist in that behavior just to spite you?
Your motivation for criticizing those around you may even be pure (even though it’s rarely so and we’ll explain why), but criticism rarely really proves a point.
On the contrary, criticism tends to produce completely opposite results when compared to what the critic had in mind in the first place.
Why is that so and how does it happen? How can you counter those effects? All will be revealed in due time, fellow critic. For now, just keep reading.
A LITTLE STORY TO PROVE A POINT
Let’s start with a little story to prove the point. A certain John Doe just came back from 4 years of studying at the University to his parent’s hometown. He came back only to be faced with the backward, outdated views, values and practices of his folks.
Now, John Doe has been schooled in the fine art of critical thinking and he’d like for that education to serve its purpose.
John wants his enlightenment to be recognized and honored and is there a higher honor than letting the honored one call the shots?
So, now the almighty bachelor of i. e. social sciences, John Doe, comes back home and expects to be inaugurated as a leader or at least as a fully grown and matured member of the family. He starts telling others what to do, how to think and how to live their lives.
He wants to make a positive impact, but the completely opposite thing happens. To highlight his enlightenment and the importance of his newly gained, vast knowledge, John starts criticizing his folks.
At first, his critique proves a point, but after a while, it mutates into nagging and constant complaints about the imperfection of his parents.
Now, John’s parents expect a little more gratitude from their Bachelor-awarded son.
They’d like some token of affection as well, but all they get is his frustration with them which just makes them more frustrated with him… and the circle goes on and on until eventually, they can’t stand each other.
John can’t accept how outdated, uneducated and inert his old folks are.
One more thing he can’t accept is their complete disregard of his opinion based on science and certificates from the University.
On the other hand, John’s parents can’t understand his need to criticize everything so they part their ways with a bitter taste in their mouths as soon as possible.
Both parties have their own reasons for believing that they fought for a just cause.
Our protagonist fought for the honor of science and bits of philosophy he scrapped at the University and his folks fought to defend the age-old tradition that served them well so it literally proved its worth.
The problem is that both parties have identified with their points of view.
SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH CRITICISM?
For starters, criticism is not always constructive, and even if it is, it may be a tough pill to swallow. The recipient would have to maintain composure and be open-minded in order to put his/her ego aside and adopt the critique.
Even with an open-minded recipient, much of it is still up to the way you convey your critique.
You should practice communicating assertively in order to both receive and give critique.
Only then will you be a qualified individual free of vanity which will lessen the chances of you provoking the vanity of your addressee.
That’s the problem with criticism. Recipients often misinterpret it for an attack on who they are instead of a critique of what they’re doing. That is so because people are usually identifying with what they are doing. They base their identities on their behavior.
In reality, it should be vice versa, if anything. Our behaviors emanate from our personalities. It can be a vicious cycle if the traits are bad, but both can be altered and improved when there is a good will.
The problem is that, depending on the way you exert critique, people may think that your motives are not benign.
That might trigger the fight or flight response so that they either completely disregard what you are saying or they fight back with a critique of their own.
Some of the less mature individuals may even exhibit spiteful behavior just to annoy the critic.
So the first problem with criticism is the potential vanity of your recipient. The second problem is the way you exert your criticism. The third potential problem of criticism can be its very content.
You should be very careful so as not to provoke someone’s ego whilst criticizing them.
Furthermore, the criticism sometimes tends to focus on the negative and it’s very difficult to produce a positive discharge when you paint it all black so make sure you add some positivity in your critique as well.
That’s why it’s very important to learn how to both give and take criticism whether it be constructive or toxic.
IS THERE A RIGHT WAY TO CRITICIZE
There are a couple of things you can do to optimize your criticism so that you lessen the probability of provoking your addressee.
First things first, before you point out someone’s flaws, make sure you highlight their virtues.
You can start criticizing by saying you generally really like the given person, but there’s something that they do that upsets you or puts you at unease in a different manner.
Just try it. Here’s a template for you:
I really like you, but…
To make it sound more sincere, make it specific as much as you can. Point out some specific virtues of your recipient. Point out why you like him/her or what you like about them. Try it like this:
I really admire your wisdom and you know that I respect you, but I can’t help but notice…
Notice how you firsts befriended your addressee in order to make them lower their guard and then you moved on with criticism? This way you avoid their defense mechanisms because they still linger on the compliment.
It’s also a more effective way of criticizing because the person in question gets more motivated to perfect his/her image of him/herself in your mind.
Our opinions on who we are and how we are, as well as our self-evaluation, are highly dependent on other people’s opinions about us.
That’s why, if you push the right buttons, people will strive towards earning your love and respect.
Another neat trick is to address people’s behavior instead of their personality.
That way you are suggesting that their flaws are not inherent or permanent, but that they are rather a current state of affairs, a coincidence that they need just become aware of and change for the better.
Based on this advice you could go with something like this:
I really appreciate your _____, and you know how much I enjoy your ______, but ______ that you do sometimes upsets me, because…
Notice how the word “because” is written in bold?
That’s because people are wired into rational if/then thinking and if you provide them with a reason and a consequence or with a cause and the effect, they’ll be more likely to cooperate.
Now the formula works even better if your “because” is followed by reasons that they will benefit from.
It’s all in the semantics and the syntax really. It’s how you put it that counts. If you suggest that they are great, but that they can be even greater if they just manage to do one thing differently, chances are they’ll give it a go.
Everyone wants to be better than they are, right? If you make it look like it’s in the palm of their hands already, you can manipulate (in a good way of course) their desire to excel.
SOCRATES’ METHOD OF CRITICISM
You heard of Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, right?
Well, he was famous for a certain method of argumentative discussion called “maieutic”. Socrates described it as giving birth to the ideas that are already present in people’s minds.
All he did was ask the right questions in order to help people recognize those ideas. How can this help you criticize someone in an assertive manner, you may wonder?
Well, practically, it would mean that you wouldn’t actually state anything, but rather ask questions that would help your addressee realize the point by him/herself.
That way they will relate to the idea as if it was one of their own so their defense mechanisms will not be triggered to fight off the foreign-imposed concept. It’s much like inception really…
So this would mean that you would ask someone if they think that something is ok or not instead of telling them something is not ok.
Just don’t be sarcastic, make it look like you’re genuinely interested in their opinion. Even better, try to be genuinely interested in their opinion.
The more indirect questions you think of to lead your collocutor to the desired conclusion, the better. The less they notice your tendency to affect their behavior the more they’ll be prone to changing it.
REEXAMINE YOUR MOTIVATION FOR CRITICIZING
A lot of people, instead of constructively criticizing their collocutors, just want to transfer some of their negativity.
It doesn’t matter what the cause of that potential negativity is, make sure that it doesn’t get transferred to your collocutors and make sure that your neurosis or frustrations aren’t causing you to criticize.
If you criticize in order to blow off some steam, there’s no technique in the world that would make your critique constructive.
Negativity always shows and multiplies if you’re not careful enough. That’s why it’s important to try and criticize only when you’re in the right mood and when you’re in complete control over your emotions and actions.
Always remember that the goal of your critique is for the person to change and not to make the person share your negative emotions.
Even if the person you’re criticizing is the one to blame for those emotions, the point of criticism is not to put the blame on them or make them feel bad about something that they’ve done.
That sort of thing can only demotivate them and make them care even less about the effects of their actions, seeing how they’re already bad… You need to give them a reason not to continue the streak.
What you want to do is to inspire them to change, to motivate them so that they want to change and that they believe that they can do it.
If you damage their confidence and make them feel insecure about themselves, they’ll become too focused on the negative which will keep them from improving.
Seeing how the goal of critique is not to make people sad, depressed, upset, insecure or emotionally destabilize them in any way, you should try to be as kind as you can be. Don’t just act kind, be kind.
If you examine your motivation and your heart is right which is to say that you want what’s best for your collocutor, you’ll find a way to assert your constructive critique so that it helps the addressee and so that it doesn’t backfire in any way.
3 THINGS YOU CAN DO INSTEAD OF CRITICIZING
They say that you should never try to change people and their identities, and it’s true to a certain extent. You should, by all means, avoid telling others what to do, who to be or how to be.
However, if you want to see someone changed for the better, there are some things you can do to motivate them to change themselves.
First of all, you can show them a better way of doing things by setting up an example. As the expression goes: Be the change you want to see in the world.
People will much easier opt for a change in their lives if they see how a certain way of doing things works wonders for others.
Humans are prone to imitation and they tend to copy the behavioral patterns which they see as useful or cool… so be cool about it.
So, show, don’t tell. That way people around you won’t feel like you’ve imposed something on them. They’ll imitate some of your features because they wanted to do that, not because someone else wanted them to be different.
Another thing you can do is tell them a story. People are wired to listening and telling stories. The narrative is one of the most fundamental modalities in which we organize our perception.
See, what narrative does is it connects chains of events into causal relations. In other words, we literally project cause and the effect of some actions and then we draw conclusions from the given effects.
It’s by no coincidence that the fairytales and myths are the pillars of raising children since the dawn of speech.
Every story has a moral and the reason it works so good is that it’s implicit. It’s implied by the structure of the story, it’s never given to us raw and that’s why we don’t perceive it as an intrusion, blackmail or programming of our psyche.
Through the structure of the story, we are faced with a neutral, impersonal chain of events and causalities from which we draw conclusions. IF I do this, THEN that happens.
Now, our desires are pretty much, more or less common. No one wants to get eaten by a dragon or get hit by a truck. No one wants his/her spouse to leave them, etc… and we all want freedom, flowers in our hair, nice salaries and a sense of purpose in our lives.
Now, you can use these motives and desires to tell a story about your two friends. One of them did something similar to what the person you’re telling a story does. The other did the opposite and succeeded in life.
Just make sure not to make it too apparent… and do it at a random moment, not when you’re provoked to do it. Make the storytelling seem natural, unbiased and coincidental.
That way the morale will seep into the mind of your collocutor.
The last thing that you can do instead of criticizing is to communicate assertively. Instead of telling someone that they should do something different or better, ask them.
Ask them if they ever thought about doing it differently instead.
You can turn the tables and just ask people why are they hurting you or upsetting you. Don’t ask the question in a feisty manner. The point of the question is not to start a fight, nor to lay a blow.
The point of the question is to provoke your collocutor’s empathy. You want him or her to view you as an ally and reassess their behavior so that they don’t hurt you.
To do that, you must not provoke their defense mechanisms, so neither offensive nor defensive approaches are not advised. You’re not having a fight, you’re not having a quarrel… you just want to know the reason behind their actions, that’s all.
You can also ask if you did anything to provoke or upset them and you can say you’re sorry if you did.
That way, you’re turning them against themselves so that they criticize themselves, which is essentially the only critique people ever accept and agree with.
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