Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Stop Criticizing Other People

Steven Pressfield’s brilliant book about overcoming resistance, The War of Art, contains this profound piece of wisdom about criticism:

"Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement."

As Your Voice of Encouragement, I am keenly interested in finding ways to uplift others. And this quote explains why some people find that easy to do, while others do not.

If you tend to think or speak critically about others, there’s something going on within you that needs to be examined. There is some aspect of your own self that you find unacceptable, but you may not want to look in the mirror. It’s much easier to turn your attention outward and find fault with those around you.

Very likely, your own inner critic is hard at work pointing out your short-comings and emphasizing your mistakes. It’s painful to listen to this kind of chatter. So when that happens, you may be quick to judge the actions of others.

The Downsides

It’s one thing to give others constructive feedback about a specific action. It’s quite another to continually point out perceived flaws. Often, the criticism centers around them doing something differently from the way you would have done it. You feel the need to explain what’s wrong with their approach and rationalize that you’re trying to be helpful.

But expressing disapproval this way rarely works.

I know, because I’ve done this myself more times than I can count. And it turns out badly every time. The other person resents being evaluated and judged, because that’s how it feels no matter what spin you try to put on it. Trust gets threatened because they aren’t sure you’re really in their corner.

Asking questions instead of making overtly disparaging statements does not guarantee you’ve got it right either. For example, starting a question with “Why” is often disguised criticism.

"Why are you doing it that way?"
"Why didn't you show some consideration for me?"
"Why don't you stop [smoking, drinking, etc.]?"

The unspoken message is, “You’re wrong and I’m right.” 

So when you ask “Why” questions, expect a defensive reaction. If you don’t believe me, start monitoring your own reaction when you get asked this kind of question.

When people feel defensive, the walls go up. You’re unlikely to connect at a level of honesty and openness. Over time, if you continue finding fault – or even worse, belittling them in front of others – they will withdraw emotionally and your relationship will be superficial at best.

The Take-away

When you feel comfortable in your own skin, you’re not threatened or offended by the imperfections you see in others. You know how difficult it is to deal with life’s daily challenges because you’ve had to weather them yourself.

Having a deep conviction that you matter makes it easier to show compassion and patience to the people you care about. You won't need to criticize and judge them. Instead, you'll look for ways to build them up and expand their view of themselves.
“Practice treating other people as if they had value, and surprisingly, your own self-esteem will go up.” – Maxwell Maltz in The New Psycho-Cybernetics


  1. This reminds me of some advice I heard about 30 years ago: "Don't waste your time trying to bring that guy down. These things have a way of taking care of themselves. Sooner or later the shit will hit the fan, and you don't want to be out there where you might get some of it on you."

  2. Great Leaders (highly in demand!) are entirely secure in themselves and their value and gain no satisfaction from merely and consistently pointing out flaws and errors and belittling people in front of others. Conversely, they choose to focus on strengthening and building upon the positives in people they lead and manage. When required though they can comfortably, securely, and in an open, honest, and direct manner discuss difficult subjects such as areas in which employees much improve. Together they discuss how the employee can improve performance, cut down on errors, and achieve increased success. Far greater results will be achieved with Postive Leadership at the helm. The Power of Positive Relationships is the key!

  3. Denny, you make a good point about criticism: it's a waste of valuable time and energy. We need to invest those resources in building others up.

    SBB, your description of great leaders' behavior is exactly on target. Those kinds of folks attract and keep the superstars, who thrive in the emotionally healthy environment you described.

  4. I am sharing this with my husband and will be sure to let him know that I know I have done this in the past and will be keen on avoiding this kind of talk in the future. I am hoping it will help him to grow as well. Thank you Meredith!

  5. Having been on both ends of this, at home with my family and at work with my boss, I see the wisdom in this article. I realize it's a bit simplified, but the part about wasting time really hit home. Today I'm going to stop wasting my and others' time and emotional energy by not giving or dwelling on unconstructive criticism.

  6. Thanks for your post here! I heard a good quote the other day about critics, "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable 2 do it themselves." Good advice to keep your mouth closed sometimes!

  7. A&A, very glad you found this article valuable and you see ways to make changes that will benefit you and the people you care about.

    Tom, I agree that there are MANY times we would do well to keep quiet. Before saying something, it's good to ask, "Will this help or hurt the other person is I say this?"

  8. A great article and a much needed one

  9. Iyengar, thank you for your positive feedback!

  10. An insightful article. The real challenge in dealing with people is in being able to examine oneself objectively. This life we live is a reflection of our inner state of being, so when we keep finding faults in others, we are really finding out our own faults, whether we have the courage to admit it or not.

  11. So true. In my work as a bioenergy therapist I also use the Work of Byron Katie and one of the bed rocks of that approach is the idea that as long as you can find something to criticize in the other then there's the next lesson on what you need to look at in yourself. Not always easy to live at times of course, but what we practice we get good at!

  12. Yes, some people find fault as if there was a reward for it.


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