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UNSOLICITED CRITICISM: GOOD OR BAD?

picture 2“Judy, it’s so nice to see you,” I say as she comes into my office and sits down on my couch.

“I’ve been reading your blog again, Dr Rubin.  It’s filled with a bunch of hogwash.”

“Hmmm, it sounds like there are some ideas in it that you don’t care for.”

“I read last night two of your blog posts–Is Criticism Bad and Criticism and Wisdom.  What a bunch of nonsense!”

“I’m very interested in your point of view, Judy.  Please tell me more specifically about what you disagree with in those posts.”

“Well, you talk about this John Stuart Mill.  According to him, if people criticize us, even for holding an opinion we are very sure of, we should thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice.  That’s ridiculous!  If you don’t have something nice to say to somebody you should keep your stupid mouth shut!  And, as far as I’m concerned, unless I give someone permission to criticize me, that person has no right to inflict it upon me!”

Judy (not her real name) raises some important issues about unsolicited criticism.  And many people have quite a bit of sympathy for her position.

SYMPATHY FOR JUDY’S POSITION

Consider the following comic:

BABY BLUES UNSOLICITED CRITICISM

The above Baby Blues comic comically plays around with this idea that you should not offer an opinion to people unless they invite you to give it.  In the comic, not only are unsolicited opinions being provided by the girl, but she is actually charging people for the opinion—a double slap in the face.

Why aren’t unsolicited negative criticisms welcomed?

UNSILICITED 2

They hurt because it brings up the feeling of “not being liked.”  When we come to realize this, we may pause before giving an opinion, which is a type of criticism, and ask ourselves if it is worth the risk of starting a conflict about being liked.

UNSILICITED 3

Thomas-JeffersonThomas Jefferson felt that even hurtful criticism should not be against the law, especially when directed against government officials.  He felt this way even though he personally experienced criticism as deeply painful. Thus, he wrote to James Monroe that the criticism he received while war governor of Virgina “had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”

Despite how very painful criticism was, at times, for Jefferson, he supported the right to provide criticism–even unsolicited criticism–to the end of his life.  To Jefferson, freedom to criticize was protection from tyranny.

CRITICISM AND OUR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS

Judy spoke about her “right” to NOT be given any criticism unless she gives her permission. Does this mean she thinks it is against the law for someone to criticize unless the criticism is invited?  Although I am no legal scholar, it is my understanding that the issue of a person’s “rights,” as understood in this country, points the other way.  Rather than the right to silence speech, don’t we have a right to speak up whenever we disagree with someone?

It seems to me that insisting that no one has the right to provide another person criticism unless invited to do so just won’t work.  The Soviet Union tried to squelch criticism and despite being backed up by an enormous military, failed miserably.  Criticism soon oozed out of every joint that government tried to seal.

CRITICISM IS COMING OUR WAY WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT

My mother, whom I loved dearly, passed away a few years back.  She was a strong verbal supporter of the proverb–If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  And yet, from time to time, she would frown at something someone would do, and, far more rarely, she would blow-up in an outrage.

I doubt that anyone can live in a manner completely consistent with one of my mother’s favorite proverbs.  And any government insisting on this principle would be as successful as the United States was when it went through its period of alcohol prohibition.

The plain fact is that all of us will be provided with negative criticism from time to time.  Even if we choose to be a hermit, we’ll probably spend some of our alone time criticizing ourselves.

SINCE IT IS COMING OUR WAY, WE WOULD BE WISE TO LEARN TO DEAL WITH IT

Criticism is just part of our shared human existence.  Rather then seeking to squelch it, we are better off learning to provide it in a wise and thoughtful manner (see post titled PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY), and to respond to it in a wise and thoughtful manner (see post titled RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: FOUR LEVELS OF MATURITY.)

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  There are times when someone is providing me one criticism after another and it is becoming too much for me to process all at once.  There are other times when someone is providing me with criticism that is in a style using a tone of voice that is hard for me to bear.  Sometimes I have been bombarded by some other type of stress, and then I come in contact with someone, and I may not be in any mood to hear any criticism for the rest of the day.   Under these sets of circumstances, I believe it makes perfectly good sense to briefly let the person I’m with know that I’m usually very open to hearing criticism, but for right now, I need a little break (see blog post SUMMARIZE AND DELAY).  Then I can, over a period of time, regain my sense of balance and figure out how best to move forward.  And I also think that it is OK to encourage others to provide you criticism in a manner that is easier for you to handle.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

Illustration by Eric Sailer

My preference is to let anyone that I know clearly understand that I am open to receive criticism most of the time, and I accept that it might feel, at times, hurtful. I feel that to do otherwise may, perhaps, result in people keeping silent to my face but end up talking behind my back. I would be left unable to address the concerns expressed in the criticism. I think openness to  criticism and seeking to address criticism is the path to wisdom.

I also think that people have a higher degree of respect for those who are open to criticism and can respond to it in a self-assured, mature manner.  People tend to admire a person who recognizes that even hurtful criticism, when wisely considered, has the potential to be of value; that facing criticism head-on is our only opener of our eyes to the fulness of truth.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

INSULTS, LIKING AND FREEDOM
DIRECT AND IMPLIED NEGATIVE CRITICISM

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

7 Comments

  1. Jeff — You hit the nail on the head again. I wish I had learned this when I was younger. In one of my jobs I was not mature enough at accepting and giving criticism. I did OK until I put in 60-80 hour weeks and then couldn’t deal with the criticism. So you have two good messages in here for me — learn to deal with the criticism up-front and balance your life so you can. I think starting a new job as a manager and giving this post to subordinates would stimulate an interesting and fruitful discussion.

  2. Hi Rick,
    I, too, wish I had learned this stuff when I was younger. I wince just thinking of all the mistakes I’ve made back then. If you do get a chance to give this post to subordinates, please let us know what comes of it.
    Warm Regards,
    Jeff

    • Jeff — I wince more at my current mistakes.

      Thanks again for your contributions to social-emotional relationships.
      Rick

  3. My brother and I are musicians and we write a lot of music together. Often he or myself will criticize a part that the other has written. Both of us certainly notice ourselves tensing up and our blood pressure rising when a part we’ve written that we really feel strong about gets criticized by the other. So often though, we calm down and talk about it and end up turning it into something that we both love even more than before. The more this happens, the more I feel like I’m reconditioning myself to handle criticism better. I really feel that the ability to tolerate and consider criticism is a huge part of me growing as a musician and as a human being in general. Even though I realize this though, I still get tense and a bit upset at first when getting criticized. I’m hoping to, little by little, condition myself to stay more and more calm and open while receiving criticism

  4. Hi JSR,
    You strike me as handling criticism very well. What you describe as getting tense and a bit upset is, it seems to me, part of the process that provides you periods of increase focus and energy to deeply search for a way toward approaching something more beautiful. Calm is way overrated in such matters. Of course it is nice to have some periods of peace. It allows you to gather up what is needed for periods of more exciting weather patterns. “Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head and knows not that it brings abundance.” –Saint Basil
    Jeff

  5. I would only comment that criticism, delivered as a barrage over a lifetime, by a narcissistic parent, can be toxic and impossible to manage using normal reasoning as you suggest. I have tried coming at this every conceivable way with my mother. She feels free to deliver her ‘opinions’ on everything and expects to be obeyed. Her hobbies are being rude, judgemental and critical to everyone from young servers in restaurants to individuals struggling with disabilities. She has little valid constructive input to offer but when challenged, even with reason, says people she upsets are overly-sensitive and she has a right to speak her mind. She is 90 and says she has earned the right to say what she damn well pleases. There is no dementia and the behaviour, which insets everyone but her, is not new. When challenged in any way she slams doors, hangs up phones and suggests that anyone showing anger or frustration is subjecting her to elder abuse!

    • Hi Vicki,
      Much thanks for your comment. It appears that you have quite a challenging situation. I don’t know enough about it to offer any advice with confidence. What comes to mind is to discuss this topic with your mother when she is in a pleasant mood. Usually even people prone to be irritable have more or less pleasant moods. I might begin by saying that you read a very interesting article the other day, and want to get various perspectives on it. Perhaps avoid making this about your mom, and say you want to discuss it in a general way. Then, if she agrees to this, begin reading her the article. After reading it, tell her gently that dealing with harsh criticism has been a longterm challenge for you, personally. A little sadness in your voice might be helpful. If you give this a try, please let us know how it went.

      My Best,
      Jeff

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