Everyone is a critic. They look around, find the things they disagree with or don’t like and then let their views loose. With the number of social media outlets and blogs available, it’s never been easier.
And yet, few ever stop and think about what the purpose of a critique is. Is it to let everyone know about a particular point of view, opposite to another person’s point of view? Is it a dog whistle that signals to a group of likeminded people? Is it a way to show superiority by means of demeaning others? Or is a critique the start of a constructive conversation about what can be done better?
Opposition, dog whistling and demeaning need no further examination. They speak for themselves. However, if a critique is meant to be constructive, it must meet certain criteria.
Who Will Hear You?
For another person to hear your critique, you must be one of the following: An authority on the matter (although, sadly, this no longer seems to be enough), in the other person’s ideological tribe (for example, the only people who can effectively bring about common sense gun legislation are gun owners), or, at the very least, respectful of the person you are critiquing.
This is easy to understand when the shoe is on the other foot. You would not listen to a person who lacked authority or expertise. You would (most likely) be suspicious of a person who subscribed to an ideology that appeared opposite to your chosen belief system. And, even if the person were completely right in his or her critique, you would not listen to someone who treated you with disrespect.
Therefore, if your goal is to offer a constructive critique, and you are neither an expert nor belong to the other person’s ideological camp, then being respectful is the very minimum you can do.
Past or Future Orientation
Another thing to consider when offering a critique is whether it is past or future oriented.
Past orientation can be helpful if the goal is to examine what went wrong, but too much focus on the past usually leads to blaming (which isn’t very helpful unless you’re looking to punish someone for his or her actions).
Future orientation, on the other hand, is mostly solution oriented. You either point to or try to figure out together what can be done better next time around.
For example, let’s say someone dropped a jar of pickles on the floor.
The constructive way would be to use past orientation to figure out what happened (your hands were slippery) and use future orientation to focus on what can be done better next time (dry your hands).
The negative way would be to use past orientation (blame) and add disparaging remarks (you idiot).
As a father, I continually try to help my children navigate the world. When they do something ‘wrong’ (in parenthesis here, because sometimes wrong is in the eye of the beholder and I have had to apologize because I mislabeled something), I’d rather that they focus on the future (change their behavior next time) than obsess over the past (make them feel bad and say sorry all the time).
Critiquing Can Be Helpful
One of the downsides of belonging to a spiritual community is that people who ascribe to that worldview can become obsessively positive to the point of not tackling painful or difficult issues.
That is not helpful (thank you, Captain Obvious).
When done with a constructive outcome in mind, however, critiquing can be an important component in all manner of relationships (friends, romantic partners, family, co-workers, subordinates, superiors, constituents, public servants, and so on).
If we are not willing to critique, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Critiquing can help us correct mistakes, refine processes, and be more respectful, to name a few.
The Next Time You Critique
And so, the next time you type a scornful comment, humiliate an ideological opponent, or shame someone for making a mistake, remember that you not offering a critique for their benefit. If you were, you would at least be respectful.
Author & Interfaith Minister