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Your Ethics – How to Give and Receive Criticism

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By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

RISMEDIA, April 1, 2008-(MCT)-We live in an age where the line between criticism and nastiness has blurred. Whether it’s Gordon Ramsay hurling insults at restaurant workers on his “Kitchen Nightmares” show, or Simon Cowell coming up with ever more creative ways of informing “American Idol” contestants that they have no talent, or talk show hosts making snide comments about a politician’s appearance, our appetite for seeing other people criticized harshly appears to know no bounds.

You’ve probably had a boss or colleague who took perverse pride in reminding you of your shortcomings. Maybe you yourself have been guilty of treating someone this way. How we give and receive criticism speaks volumes about our character, so this column is an appropriate venue for considering better and worse ways of criticizing people and how we ought to respond when someone finds fault with our own work.

What is Criticism, Anyway?

Criticism is the attempt to understand what is right or wrong about a person’s ideas or behavior and to encourage that person to change accordingly. The goal of true criticism is to help someone be the best they can be. It is not about making someone feel bad, instilling guilt, or reducing a person to tears, though all of these can be an unfortunate byproduct. When criticism is done appropriately, the person who has been criticized will understand what he or she has done wrong and will feel inspired to make a change for the better.

Acknowledging Criticism

What should we do when someone criticizes us? As long as the criticism isn’t petty, vicious, or personal, or otherwise way off base, we should take it to heart. It’s only by carefully considering what a critic has to say that we’re able to become better at what we do and who we are. It’s understandable that our first reaction to criticism is a refusal to consider the critic’s points. Nevertheless, we can’t maintain excellence in what we do or continue to grow if we refuse to work on ourselves, which means, in part, taking criticism seriously.

The Rules of Fair Play

When you want to criticize someone:

1. Begin by finding something you like or appreciate about the person you’re about to criticize. This is not only fair; it will also make the person more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

2. Focus on what that person has said or done, not on him or her personally. Only the former is relevant and likely to be acknowledged.

3. Conclude by affirming your faith that the other person will consider what you have to say. This is both a respectful way to wrap up the criticism and the best way to ensure that your remarks will be given their due.

When someone criticizes you:

1. Resist the urge to dismiss the critic. Considering what the person has to say will only strengthen your own understanding of the issue you care about.

2. Recognize that you may not be right. You may be unaware of one or more of the facts relevant to your argument, or you may have ignored some of the rules or principles at stake.

3. Realize that ad hominem attacks say more about the person making them than about you. Rather than sink to the level of such attacks, it’s wise to ignore them.

Our goal in life can be to bring out the best in others and ourselves, or it can be to puff up our own egos and debase others by exploiting our power over them. If the former is our mission, we would do well to give criticism respectfully and receive it graciously whenever it is offered in good faith.

© 2008, Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

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