A Conversation About Unsolicited Criticism

A while back, I published on this blog a post titled, “Unsolicited Criticism: Good or Bad?” Regular readers may recall that it begins as follows:

Illustration by Aviva Maltin

Illustration by Aviva Maltin

“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.”

John Stewart Mill

John Stewart Mill

“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!”

brilliant2The rest of that post provides my response to Judy. As brilliant as that response is, it is my considered opinion that my readers and I benefit from hearing a variety of views on these types of issues. And so, with that in mind, I went about seeking these views by introducing the post to the Facebook groups that I belong to. Thus, I wrote for each group the following:

Some say that unless you are invited to provide criticism, you should keep your mouth shut. How wise is that?

Then I provided the link to my post.  It led to quite a few excellent insightful discussions. My favorite happened to appear on the wonderful group, The Brain Cafe. To our good fortune, several of its participants graciously granted permission to use their comments for the current post. These permissions do not mean they are providing a blanket endorsement of this blog or its writers. And, with that, let’s take a look at the discussion that had taken place.

The Brain Cafe Discussion

brian cafe image

Brad Esau, prior to reading my blog post wrote: Uninvited “advice” makes me go thermo nuclear. Uninvited criticism is courting death. Perhaps I should read this.

I, Jeffrey Rubin, replied: Please do read it, Brad Esau, and then let me know what you think.

academicBarry Kort: I suppose the context matters. As a retired academic, I hang out in Internet venues where my fellow academics schmooze with each other and with interested lay people who are arm-chair aficionados of the subjects on the table. In academia, we have a scholarly culture such that we routinely peer-review each other’s work in a collegial and congenial manner. I view this culture as being characterized by an informal tacit social contract that defines a scholarly culture.

There is, on the other hand, the unscientific (or non-scientific) political culture which has its own inscrutable ground rules which admit of some rather dicey and sleazy practices.

What is the lay person to do in these Social Networks? Clearly we find a mix of behavior that spans the spectrum.

I don’t mind conscientious scholarly criticism of the sort one would expect in academia. I’m not fond of the kind of snarky or mean-spirited dismissals that one finds in our ofttimes toxic political culture….

CanadaBrad Esau: This seems to be a cultural thing. I’ve noticed Americans (I’m Canadian) seem to have this notion that they have the “right” to speak out about anything at any time. This is much different than most cultures.

I happen to believe a) I – or anyone – absolutely has the right to deny anyone’s “right” to offer “criticism” or “input” and b) through much, much, much hard won experience, I learned that most people’s “criticism” was largely invalid and of poor construct. In other words, they had no idea what they were talking about.

I am very, very open to critique – if it’s from someone whose expertise or experience I trust and they’ve *earned* my trust. Otherwise, I have no time to waste on most people’s hot air.

So while I think your approach is valid for within American culture, it should be limited to that.

E. C.: Well said Brad! (also a “fellow” Canadian). Love your courage for taking this on Jeffrey. And Brad, you make me THINK

Brad Esau: Thanks, E. C. After growing up in polite Canada and spending a decade and a half around Asians (Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese) where this kind of “right” to openly criticize is unthinkable, I still find this jarring. Most of my online exchanges are with our friends south of the 49th. Just could never get used to their unrestrained forwardness.

And thank you for the compliment.

criticism1Barry Kort: What stood out for me in that vignette was that Judy was enacting a practice that she abhorred when the roles were reversed. About the only scenario where that’s kosher is in scripted psychodrama as a theatrical performance.

Brad Esau: Thinking on this further, I think unsolicited criticism is warranted in cases where intervention is needed. Somebody is clearly going about things in ways that will harm their future or… their chances at their goals, and then I think it’s quite correct to voice some well founded constructive criticism….

The thing with most people, they’re not nearly as “smart” or “wise” or “expert” as they believe themselves to be and most of their “criticism” or “advice” is nothing more than egotistical bluster and hot air.

criticism5After some time had passed, Brad added: I now just sort of have this iron clad rule for when anyone – and I mean anyone – offers “advice” or “criticism” I ask for or dig into their credentials and poke into what their motivation might be. 98% of people don’t pass those simple tests.

Of course the trick then is to learn to check one’s own premises and to see if whatever criticism or feedback they might have had to offer was warranted.

There are so many variables at work here!

I could fill a city with people crippled by the criticism they received all their lives from their mothers. Hell, maybe a whole continent. I’d have to say raising motherly criticism is invalid.

Judges are different – you purposely go there to be judged. The topic here is *unsolicited* criticism and how to deal with it.

Dilbert on constructive criticismE. C.: No one wants or needs to hear “bad things” about themselves. That is not constructive criticism. What is helpful is solicited advice on how I can improve on something. That is entirely different, and it requires the “advice giver” to have to actively listen to what it is I am asking and what information I am giving as far as what I need advice or help with.

cultureLyra Alves: I agree that it is highly determined by our cultural background, but we surely can work our way out of having it as “taboo” and adapt to it. I find criticism, from whatever source it comes, from people who know me or not, who have something interesting to say or not, an incredible gift for my personal growth. I trust much more people who are straight forward than those who are over-polite. I also tend to feel that often those who resist to criticism or those who only accept it if it comes from certain “certified” sources may have self-confidence issues, some hidden insecurities to be sorted out. Every chance we receive some criticism is a chance we have to review various concepts we have about ourselves, about what is the best or not. I think it is always a valuable chance to expand our view on the world and increase our ability to empathize.

Susan Clemens: I have a Facebook rule: Your wall; your opinion.
Other than that, constructive criticism can be offered if you have a relationship with the person, if the person is otherwise at risk of injury, or if you are approaching a business from the customer perspective.
“Pat them-poke them-pat them” works best. I have a few friends who welcome criticism and others who can’t stand it. I try to respect them and vice versa.

criticism4Brad Esau <irony>

I’ve recently posted a piece critical of America and Americans along with my own well founded views.

Going by the universal angry responses and denial I’ve gotten so far, it seems like the people who enjoy criticizing the most and defend their “right” to do so, are most uncomfortable with criticism of themselves.


Jeffrey Rubin: Brad Esau, I’ve noticed the same thing–that many people who hate to be criticized are among the quickest to criticize, and often are the ones who are the nastiest criticizers as well.

criticism6E. C.: I wonder, am I the only one who kind of “bristles” at the word “Criticism?” I am all for constructive feedback but for some reason framing it as “criticism” feels far less helpful and like others have said does become more about the person giving it than about the person needing it. Jeffrey Rubin – do you see a difference? If so, why or why not?

Jeffrey Rubin: Hi E. C. I see the difference that you are trying to make, and it is an important and worthwhile distinction to make. I don’t see that that difference has to be made by using the word “feedback” for one and “criticism” for the other. However, if I am in a conversation just with you, I wouldn’t object to an understanding that we would use the words to mean whatever you would like.

That said, people have a variety of conceptions of these two words (criticism and feedback) and therefore typically it is a good idea to use more than just those words to explain what we mean. Defining our terms beforehand is a good strategy.

bad moodFor future reference, to me and Daniel Webster, criticism is an evaluation. If you have evaluated something, then you have formulated a criticism of it; and if you tell someone your evaluation, you are providing the person criticism or a critique of something. It can be done in a way so that it is designed to be helpful to someone. Sometimes it is expressed in a manner that is designed to punish someone, or to just hurt someone for a variety of reasons, e.g., because of jealousy or because the person is stressed and irritable.

Concluding Comment

criticsm2Well, I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did. I hate to end it here, for there is so much more to say, but rest assured that there will be more on this emotionally packed conversation in coming weeks.  Until then, here’s hoping that kindness accompanies all of the criticisms that come our way.


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 intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.




From Psychiatric Name Calling to Plain, Humane English
Bob Dylan on Madness

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.


  1. I’ve been reading “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop”, by Clifford Nass (2010). The book has a chapter on “Praise and Criticism”. Some things from the chapter:
    – there are neurological reasons to avoid the suggested “feedback sandwich”
    – praise is not always beneficial
    – criticize with caution and always with clear follow-up actions

  2. Hi Vicki,

    When you refer to the “feedback sandwich” I think you are referring to the strategy of providing negative criticism by first giving some positive comment, then the negative, and then ending with a positive comment. I personally don’t find that helpful when applied to me. I prefer that people just come out and tell me what’s on their minds. But I think that for some more fragile individuals it can be helpful at times.

    I agree that praise is not always helpful. I like the third principle–criticize with caution and always with clear follow-up actions. Nice. Much thanks for your comment

  3. That was good, Jeffrey. Nicely crafted.

    I wish more people had been able to participate and consent to have their remarks included here.

  4. Hi Barry,
    Much thanks for your comment, and I very much appreciate your contribution to this post. I, too, like the way it came out. It affords readers an opportunity to get a variety of views on this topic, and to hear people wrestle with the concepts of criticism, constructive criticism, and feedback. These ideas are so wrapped up with very strong emotional experiences so that they don’t often get looked at in a helpful, less impassioned manner.

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