Many times, criticism just antagonizes others and strains relationships. So why do we keep doing it?
It’s much easier to criticize than to take the time to figure out the best way to help someone improve. Criticism can be very risky. When we are overly critical of ourselves, we may give up trying to improve. When we are overly critical of others, we may alienate friends and drive away employees. Countless marriages are marred by hypercritical spouses, and hypercritical parents can leave children with emotional scars.
The good news is that we can become less critical of ourselves and others. For starters, the next time you feel the impulse to criticize, keep your lips together. Then, during a calm moment, decide on the best course of action from the options below.
6 ways to be less critical:
1. Hold off for now. Criticism is often unnecessary. When you forgot to pay your credit card bill or mortgage payment on time, did you really need to berate yourself? What you needed was compassion and understanding for the painful lapse. Before criticizing someone, ask yourself, “Do they realize they made a mistake?” If yes, then just be supportive; they will likely learn on their own from the experience.
Look for patterns. If the mistake happens two, three times, then it is appropriate to brainstorm with the person ways to address the issue.
2. Be accepting. None of us is perfect. God created each one of us with a unique set of weaknesses and strengths. By overcoming our weaknesses and developing our strengths, we best fulfill our life’s purpose.
We need to accept ourselves the way we are and to accept others the way they are, with all the flaws, failings and imperfections we all have. Trying to fix every weakness – your own or others’ – will lead to frustration and failure. Instead, focus on developing strengths, shoring up key weaknesses which get in the way, and accepting the rest.
3. Look for and praise the good points. Everyone has good qualities. Often, we are quicker to highlight the flaws in ourselves and others than the good points. Is that fair?
We have to praise and compliment ourselves and others much more than criticize. Researchers John Gottman (working with couples) and Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (working in the business field) discovered similar findings. The optimal ratio of positive reinforcement (e.g. praise) to negative reinforcement (e.g. criticism) is approximately 5 to 1; in other words, we do best when we receive many times more positive feedback than negative comments.
Think of people of whom you are highly critical, perhaps your spouse, children, or employees. What is your ratio with them of positive to negative comments? Use that as a starting point upon which to improve. Each day or time you see them, give them at least one sincere and specific compliment or expression of appreciation.
4. Criticize indirectly. Often, the best critiques are those delivered indirectly. If the person doesn’t even realize you’re being critical, even better. This approach takes finesse, but with practice, you’ll get the hang of it.
Here are some ways to criticize indirectly: Mention in passing what has worked for you or others, praise them when they do things right, or email a pertinent article. For example, if you know people who are very critical of themselves or others, email them this article.
For your own weaknesses which get in the way, instead of berating yourself, read self-help articles and books to strengthen the area with which you currently struggle.
5. Be future focused. Instead of saying to yourself or others, “You blew it this time,” which is unhelpful and hurtful, say, “In the future, please…” or, “I would appreciate it if you…” or, “You may want to consider…” By focusing on the future, phrasing it as a request, and/or an option and not a command, your comment will not come across as a personal attack.
This suggestion works best when we phrase the statement in the positive – what to do. Phrasing the statement in the negative – what not to do – is often perceived as a direct criticism and should be used sparingly.
It’s not only what you say, but also how you say it; make the comment sweetly and with a smile.
6. Choose your battles. Often, we criticize to let off steam or get an issue off our chest. But that doesn’t help the other person. If you want the person to actually benefit from what you say, give your feedback sparingly.
Make a list of the criticisms you’d like to make. During a calm moment, look over each one and ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to point this out? Will they actually listen to me?” If the answer to either one is no, then accept the issue for now and ask God to guide the person to the proper path.
When it makes sense to bring up a topic, pray to God for guidance and ask yourself, “What’s the best way to help him/her improve in this area?” Often, the answer is to wait for an opportune time to make an indirect criticism or a future focused comment. If the person responds ambivalently and it is an important issue, try again in a couple of weeks. Often, when people are given time to think things over, when the issue is brought up again they are more open to making changes.
Sometimes, you have to up the ante and have a sit-down discussion about an issue you find troubling. In that case, focus on only one topic at a time. Give the person ample opportunity to address the issue before bringing up another one. The same applies to ourselves; focus on improving one area at a time.
To help you achieve your goal of becoming less critical of others, share with those you frequently criticize, that you are working on being less critical and more complimentary. Ask them monthly for feedback on how you are doing; see if they have any suggestions, in this area, how you can improve even more. Do not argue with them, just thank them for their feedback and give their comments serious consideration.
Words have incredible power; use them to make people feel good about themselves and to encourage them to reach their highest potential (yourself included).
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