One maxim I was taught from an early age was “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” What they don’t say is how hard it is to hold our tongue, especially when we’re children.
For some reason, “you can’t play with us because you smell” rolls off the tongue much easier than “I accept you for who you are, no matter what.” The fact remains that there is solid logic why we should hold our tongue: criticism hurts.
Hans Selye, an endocrinologist famous for his studies on stress, said, “As much as we thirst for approval, we dread condemnation.”
Criticism breeds resentment, causes others to justify their behavior, wounds the others sense of importance, and destroys the person’s sense of pride. Not only that, but the damage to ourselves is far greater.
By openly criticizing without thinking of the impacts, we don’t allow ourselves to understand the reality of the situation. By casting judgment, we make a conscious choice to focus on addressing a problem as opposed to understanding the root cause of the problem.
Here are five reasons to avoid criticizing:
1. Criticism wounds the other person’s self-worth. If you’ve ever seen the starting auditions on American Idol, I’m sure you’ve seen Simon Cowell and his harsh criticisms of the contestants. Simon is famous for such lines as, “If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning.” Imagine going into an audition in front of three of the most popular celebrities of all time, and one of them telling you “Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would be a great female impersonator.” Not very endearing.
The result of such harsh criticisms and blatant lack of value for the other person is a lowered sense of self-worth. Going into the audition the person might have thought that they were the next big star, but coming out of the audition their hopes and dreams were crushed in a harsh, biting way.
While the person may be valuable in other ways, people can have the tendency to focus on what other people don’t like about them. Openly criticizing people can diminish their self-worth, and ultimately take the wind out of their sails.
2. Criticism hurts the other person’s sense of importance. Slightly different than self-worth is a person’s sense of importance to the world. De-valuing someone or someone’s work minimizes their perceived value to the world, and makes them feel less important. The truth is most people want to feel significant, and get their value through searching for or living their purpose.
When someone’s self-worth is destroyed, their sense of importance or meaning to the world goes too. Especially if you criticize the person openly, in front of a large group of people. Think about when a child is reprimanded in front of his or her classmates. “Everyone is supposed to raise their hand to speak, Billy. You don’t raise your hand when you speak and that doesn’t allow the other children a chance to say anything. You need to learn self-control and raise your hand before you speak.”
How do you think Billy is going to feel? Small. Very small. By addressing the fault openly in front of everyone, Billy’s sense of importance (especially his self sense of importance to his peers) is shrunk to nothing more than the size of a marble.
3. Criticism causes the other person to resent you. Many times the result of a lowered sense of self-worth and importance is ultimately resentment. When Simon Cowell tells someone they suck, or a teacher calls out a student for poor behavior, the person being criticized will probably take exception to the criticism and loathe the criticizer.
And when resentment is fueled, it leads others to think in terms of revenge. For Simon Cowell, it meant one contestant grabbing a cup of ice water and splashing it on Simon after a particularly scathing criticism. Not to mention the death threats. For the teacher, it meant that Billy stopped caring about raising his hand, and he quickly distanced himself from class discussion and purposefully boycotted learning.
4. Criticism sparks the other person to justify their behavior. Perhaps one of the most unintended consequences of criticism is that people tend to justify why they behave the way they do. To protect against a lowered sense of importance or self-worth, the criticized will justify why they choose to act or believe a certain way. Simon tells a contestant that their singing is “dreadful.”
The contestant responds that he thinks he is a good singer, and that his mother always tells him what a good singer he is. No matter how wrong the contestant’s perception is, they still justify that they are a good singer, and that Simon doesn’t know what he’s talking about. At Taco Bell a manager says “You’re going too slow.
Speed it up.” The employee responds, “You don’t pay me enough. I’m going just as fast as you are.” Many times criticizing is not going to change the person’s behavior. Instead, the person takes the defensive.
5. Withholding your criticism allows you to understand the other person. So, we don’t want people to feel like they’ve been de-valued, or that they’re not important. And we certainly don’t want people to resent us, or take the offensive or defensive against us.
In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey says to win any relationship, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When we withhold our criticism, seek to understand why a person is doing what they’re doing, and we consider the other person’s worth, importance, and feelings, we can get a clearer picture of the situation.
We show others that we genuinely care when we seek to understand them. By showing others our intents are true and pure, we increase our bonding and trust with that individual, and lay the foundation necessary to learn from each other. Once we have a strong bond, and have developed trust, then discussing problems becomes easier.
When invited, we can criticize in constructive ways that inspire others … Your turn: When is it appropriate and not appropriate to criticize others?