How to handle and respond to unsolicited criticism

Rules for giving unsolicited criticism

You might think you’re helping someone when you offer them unsolicited criticism — but are you really?

I know a lot of people who are really into self-improvement and finding the truth, what sometimes practicing this means that they intrinsically assume other people are also really interested in improving themselves and will therefore want to hear the truth about everything they’re doing wrong.

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Here are 5 rules for giving criticism that’s less likely to offend the other person, and more likely to actually help:

1. Don’t

Seriously, this is usually the right choice. Most people don’t appreciate getting criticism they didn’t ask for and even among those who do sometimes appreciate it and find it helpful. 

If you don’t have the right relationship with someone or you catch them at a moment when they’re not in the right frame of mind, it can end up being very upsetting or off-putting.

Another reason that many people including myself often don’t find unsolicited criticism very helpful even if it’s meant to be for a good reason, is that if the person is pointing out a thing that we’re already well aware of, and we just haven’t yet managed to fully fix yet.

So if you were to tell me, “You know I think your speeches would be so much better if you could just not say “like” all the time.” Then I wouldn’t be like, “Uh-huh! Yeah, you’re right, I never thought of that, I guess I’ll just stop saying it.” It could the case that I’m very much aware of it and trying to fix it, but haven’t fully succeeded yet. 

So in cases like this, all you’re really doing is calling the person’s attention to something that they already know and is frustrating for them.

2. Check Your Motivation

If you are determined to try giving unsolicited criticism and you want to maximize the chance that it ends up being helpful and well-received, first you need to check your motivation.

Are you really giving criticism with the main purpose of helping the person deep down? Or, are you giving it because you’re annoyed or frustrated?

If you’re like, “Uggh! This person is so annoying, can’t stand her, I’m gonna tell her in her face what's wrong with her!” If your motivation is not pure it’s probably going to show, and your criticism is not likely going to be helpful or well-received.

Also, never forget to check if the thing you’re pointing out is something they can in fact change! If you’re like, “You know you’re just too tall!” It’s kind of intimidating, they’re not gonna be like, “Okay I’ll be less tall, thank you!”

3. Frame as an opportunity

Rule number three — frame your criticism in terms of an opportunity for the person to do something that would be awesome, and not in terms of pointing out a thing they’re currently doing which is not awesome.

So, for instance, you should say, “I found that in public speaking it’s really helpful to deliberately make eye contact with people in the audience, that helps keep them engaged and interested in what you’re saying;” instead of, “You know I noticed you don’t make eye contact with people in the audience and, I think it really puts them off and makes them bored and disengaged” — same content but very different framing and therefore very different reception.

4. Include yourself

Try to frame your criticism in terms of something that you used to have a problem with and, that you managed to fix to some extent. You could put it that way, “I used to be late all the time and, it really pissed people off, and here’s something I did which made it less of a problem, that might work for you too!”

This makes the person feel like you don’t think that you’re better than them, rather you’re sort of in it together. It helps mitigate some of those uncomfortable status dynamics that come into play when someone feels like they’re being scolded by someone who knows better than they do.

5. Acknowledge the challenge

Rule number five — sort of relating to my previous point about how a lot of criticism is about something the person’s already aware of. You can alleviate that problem somewhat by acknowledging that you realize that a thing is hard to fix.

Instead of saying or pointing out the problem and saying blah blah blah as a solution, just say less! Though it’s really hard to change these kinds of ingrained habits, just pointing out the problem and throwing some solutions that they are already aware of aren't going to be of much help. 

Rather adding something such as a little qualifier for their problem will make them feel that you are in the same league as them and you really understand what they are dealing with, or understand the issues that they need to fix.

Author: Julia Galef, co-founder- Center for Applied Rationality.

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Cover Photo: Noah Buscher on Unsplash

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