One major situation in which people end up feeling insulted is when someone provides negative criticism.
Rather than to feel insulted, it is possible to learn to welcome criticism in a warm, friendly and helpful manner.
An important step toward mastering this skill is to learn to clearly recognize when criticism is occurring. If you can’t identify when a red light is flashing, you won’t be able to know when to apply the brakes on the car, and you are likely to end up in a serious accident.
Similarly, if you can’t identify when criticism is occurring, you won’t be able to know when to begin to put in place the plans that effectively deal with criticism.
Although some forms of criticism are as easy to recognize as a red light, some forms of criticism are far more subtle and therefore often go unrecognized as criticism. Today’s lesson will help all of us learn to recognize very quickly when some of the more subtle forms of criticism occur.
WHAT IS CRITICISM?
A Dictionary’s Definition of Criticism
My handy Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary tells us that “criticize” means, “1: to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly : EVALUATE 2: to find fault with : point out the faults of.”
My Definition of Criticism
You may have noticed that in Webster’s definition of “criticize,” the word “EVALUATE” is in capital letters. This is the main idea regarding this concept. Therefore, for the purposes of this blog, if someone evaluates something as positive, negative, neutral, or any point in between, the evaluator has made a criticism.
Because “criticism” is so often associated with an unfavorable evaluation, to avoid confusion, let’s distinguish between the various types of criticism by using the word negative criticism for unfavorable evaluations, neutral criticism for evaluations that leave the evaluator feeling neither positive nor negative about what has been evaluated, and positive criticism for favorable evaluations. Today’s blog post will focus on negative criticism.
Direct and Implied Forms of Negative Criticism
Some forms of negative criticism are fairly obvious.
When individuals indicate that they don’t like something, they are clearly providing a negative evaluative statement. These types of evaluative statements are forms of direct negative criticism.
When the word “dislike” is used describing one’s reaction to something, it clearly indicates to us that a direct form of negative criticism has occurred. There are several other words that are so clearly associated with “disliking” that they also signal a direct, obvious form of negative criticism has occurred. The words “bad,” “ugly,” “nasty,” “rotten,” “ridiculous,” “stupid, ”or any other adjective that is generally understood to be not liked, indicate direct, obvious, negative criticism has occurred.
In the above Dilbert comic, none of the characters actually use any form of the word “dislike,” but in the last frame, it’s pretty clear that referring to Alice’s plan as “lame” is a form of negative criticism.
Some forms of criticism are not quite as obvious as the direct kind.
In the above comic’s last panel, Dilbert provides positive criticism to Wally while, at the same time, provides indirect or implied criticism to the woman. In the first panel of the comic, Dilbert hadn’t realized he had provided any negative criticism to the woman and only discovers this clearly by the second frame. This comic illustrates that sometimes we provide indirect negative criticism without realizing it. Under some sets of circumstances, this can lead to unintended problems. It is therefore wise to learn to better recognize negative criticism in all of its guises. Three forms of indirect criticism that often go unrecognized as negative criticism are making a request, making a suggestion, and providing levity.
Making a Request
A request is a type of criticism that is not always recognized as criticism. If I request that you change your shirt before we go out, I’m implying that I think that there is something wrong with it. Thus, it implies negative criticism. If I request that you join me for dinner and a show, it implies that I would like to spend an evening with you. Thus, it implies positive criticism.
To get a better sense of this type of implied criticism, consider a scenario in which a dad, mom, and son are preparing for supper. The son’s dinner job is to set the table. Noticing the butter container is almost empty, he decides to take out a new container and place it on the table alongside the almost empty one.
After everyone sits down to have a pleasant meal, the dad, while buttering his bread, finishes the old container. Not noticing the new container is easily within his reach, he says to his son, “Do you mind getting a fresh container out from the refrigerator? I just finished this one.”
Now let’s say that his son responds in a matter-of-fact tone, “A fresh container is right here, Dad.” The dad glances at the new container of butter, nods his head at his son, thus indicating he recognizes his son is correct, and the family then continues on with the conversation.
Most people will not see the dad’s request containing any criticism of his son. The dad is criticizing the table’s condition; that is, he evaluated the condition of the table, and found that it was missing a sufficient amount of butter. Under this set of circumstance, if the dad did not view this as an example of criticism, in all likelihood it’d be no big deal.
But consider a slightly different scenario. This time the dad, in requesting that his son get out a fresh container, although using the exact same words as the first scenario, now has a slight tone of annoyance in his voice? His son interprets this as meaning that his dad thinks he should have anticipated that the almost empty butter container would not be enough for tonight’s dinner, and therefore he should have taken out, along with the old container, a new container. The son, therefore experiences his dad’s slight tone of annoyance as criticism, not just of the table’s lack of butter, but of something he has done. The son replies using the exact same words as he used in the first scenario. However, when he says,—“A fresh container is right here, Dad,”— draws out the word “Dad” to, “D-a-a-d.” And, instead of a matter-of-fact tone, we notice just a hint of straining in his vocal cords. With these two slight changes, the son more clearly indicates that he is becoming defensive and is now criticizing his dad for not noticing the new butter container. At this point, the dad shouts, “Don’t you dare talk to me in that tone of voice!” All of a sudden, the table blows up in an argument.
As I noted earlier, we would do well to learn to recognize all forms of criticism because there are a variety of effective techniques to draw upon, all specifically designed to address conflicts that involve criticism. It is for this reason that the skill to identify indirect, less obvious, forms of criticism can be helpful. To that end, let’s take a look at another type of criticism that often goes unrecognized as criticism.
As with requests, often when someone offers a suggestion, a criticism is lurking within the suggestion.
Betty has invited Katrina over for some tea in her back yard. The sun is shining and the birds are singing a pleasant song. As the two friends chat, Katrina glances over at Betty’s tomato plants.
“Betty,” says Katrina, “let me make a suggestion. Perhaps it would be better if you moved your plants to that sunny patch over there a few yards from your hedge. They’ll get lots of sun there.”
“Listen, Katrina, I don’t care for you coming over here criticizing my gardening skills?”
“Criticize!” exclaims Katrina. “I didn’t criticize anything! All I did was offer a suggestion!”
Apparently Katrina has a different definition of a suggestion than I do. Given that we have defined “criticism” as evaluating, Katrina, as she provided her suggestion, also provided criticism. She looked over to the plants, evaluated where they were and what shape they were in, and then presented her judgment to Betty.
On this blog, when I use the word “suggestion” in a description of some scenario, it always indicates that the person to whom the suggestion is made is being criticized.
Tom Greening writes charmingly provocative poems (see for example his wonderful book titled, Words Against the Void). Recently there was an exchange on the internet among a group of folks who are interested in promoting peace in the world. At one point, Tom sent out the following email:
I’m sorry, but I have sold out.
The money and prestige were too hard to resist.
A really cool way to have fun
is solving problems with a gun.
Our government has shown the way
and slaughters bad guys ev’ry day.
It’s patriotic, brave and easy,
so don’t be cowardly or queasy.
There is no reason you should wait
to kill the enemies you hate.
A lot of evil folks must die—
don’t waste your time by asking why.
Now, at one point there was a discussion about whether this was a type of criticism, or was it levity. Sandra Rafman’s comment on this issue eloquently captured my own view. She wrote:
Intrinsic to its humour, Tom Greening’s poetry is implicitly and/or explicitly critical and gives us a critical perspective on important contemporary issues. He also gently invites us to be self-critical. He reminds me to not take myself too seriously but not to not take important issues seriously, Thanks Tom.
Sandra Rafman, Ph.D.
Université du Québec à Montréal
McGill University Health Centre-Montreal Children’s Hospital
Okay! This concludes the introduction to the notion of direct and implied forms of criticism. Whenever requests, suggestions, and providing levity come up in intrapersonal and interpersonal situations, I am suggesting here that you learn to flash a red light in your mind signaling you to stop and to start considering some of the options we have been discussing in this blog.
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.