Have you ever had anyone get angry because you gave them feedback?
It’s sad but true: what should be a “critique” often turns instead to “criticism”… and that makes us think of nit-picking, expressing our dislike for, or showing-off our “superior knowledge” of a topic.
This leads many people to hate critique. On top of that, most people, including me on a bad day, would rather hear all the positives and none of the negatives. Aren’t I the best figure skater in the world even though last week was my first lesson?
Since my days of willful ignorance, I’ve given and listened to tons and tons of critique — partly because I finally recognized that I can always improve, and also…. well, it is the biggest part of my job.
The downside? There is genuinely a lot of bad criticism out there. The upside? With enough experience, we can all become skilled at turning it into a critique!
The job of an Critique Giver is simple: reflect back to someone what you have noticed through asking questions and making observations.
This post is written for those of you who listen to and give critique. If we can all learn to give productive feedback, or figure out what people really mean under all those words, won’t the world be a little happier for us to live in?
The 4 Most Common Bad Criticisms and How to Fix ‘Em
1. The People-Pleasing Critique
Yes! All critiques should start with a positive statement. That said, the positive statement should not be (a) fake or (b) the only thing said.
Remember William Hung from American Idol? Or anyone who sucked on American Idol?
Am I the only old-school, reality singing show fan? If so, this is what all the rejected, bad singers say: “But all my friends tell me I’m an amazing singer!” These reject singers were victims of the People Pleasing Critique.
The People Pleasing Critiques accomplish the very short-term, short-lived goal of making you feel good about yourself.
The People Pleasing Critiques accomplish the longer-term result of letting you believe you’re amazing and better than everyone else, when you are probably just average (or even below average) in the grand scheme of the world’s population.
The People Pleasing Critiques lead you down a path that gets you mocked on National Television by a panel of judges, immortalizing you and your foolishness on YouTube for the rest of your life.
People Pleasing Critiques are often given either because the Critiquer is inexperienced, but more likely because the Critiquer is worried you’ll hate them forever if they are negative in any way. (Since, let’s face it: not everyone is as mature as you, oh-seeker-of-meaningful-critiques.)
Remedy for the People Pleasing Critiques: Internalize the fact that Good Friends give Good Critiques.
If you have trouble giving critique, remember 3 simple rules: Be Kind. Be specific. Be helpful. Start with your (honest) People Pleasing line, and then segue into one concrete observation. I like to kickstart my “critique” segment with the phrases, “I noticed that…” or “I wonder if….”
If you receive a People Pleasing Critique, seek out another one. Go back to this “critique” when you are feeling bad about yourself.
“I know you said my singing is amazing, so thank you. I wonder if you could tell me if I was off-key or hard to understand at any point.”
—What the Rejected Singers from American Idol didn’t say to their friends
2. The Vague Critique
This is by far the worst kind of critique because it not only gets you nowhere, it will probably just make you feel bad. Listen with caution.
The vague critique can sometimes be caused by Know-it-All Syndrome, in which the Critique Giver wants to feel like they know what they are talking about, but is ignorant of the subject (and trying to “fake it”).
It can also be caused by general inability to articulate ideas, in which case you should approach the Vague Critique Giver with a very specific set of questions next time…. or not at all.
Vague Critiques are just plain bad, horrible things that accomplish something kind of but only if you really think about things in that way.
Examples of the Vague Critique:
~ “I see what you are trying to do, but I don’t know if it works.”
~ “It’s not that good.”
Remedy: Be Kind and Specific.
~ “Elisa, in your blog post, you wrote that you identify with the role of the gentrifier. I’m confused about why you see yourself like this, because I hate gentrification but I don’t hate you.”
~ “I like the way you cooked the chicken. [lead with the positive] I wonder if you could not put that piece of dog poop on top of it next time. [finish with the specific feedback]”
3. The “My Way is the Right Way” Critique
The MWIRW Critique Giver is often someone who is experienced and successful in their field, but has trouble seeing that others can achieve the same success in a different way.
This kind of Critique Giver is someone who will criticize a news article because it has no character development — sure, they are right, but it’s a news article. Their advice often involves taking your work and trying to make it into theirs.
Some MWIRW Critique Givers just enjoy hearing themselves talk…. after all, you asked them for a critique. So shouldn’t they have something, you know, “intelligent” to say?
Unfortunately, these critiques leave no room for the listener to figure out their own path.
And yes, sometimes, the MWIRW Critique can be helpful. However, you must learn to pick and choose. Do not be blinded by appearances. Just because someone “sounds smart” does not mean they are right. Moreover, what works for someone else will not always work for you.
Examples of the “MWIRW” Critique.
~ “You tied up all the ends of your book too neatly. It needs some drama at the end.”
~ “You and your colleagues interrupt each other when you talk. This speaks to dysfunction in your relationships with each other.”
Remedy: Give a concrete observation. Reflect back options.
~ “I notice you tie up your novel really neatly at the end. Are you going for slice-of-life adult fiction, or young adult? In the adult fiction, there’s usually less resolution, so your novel seems geared towards YA right now because everything wraps up so well.”
~ “I noticed you and your colleagues interrupt each other when you talk. Do you feel really close to them and OK with that? Or does that ever bug you?”
4. The Self-Hating Critique
This critique has seeds in a dark place of self-hate within the Critique Giver and thrust onto you, the unassuming Critique Receiver.
This is not to say this critique cannot be helpful! It CAN. However, it is not for the Beginning Critique Receiver, nor the hyper-sensitive. You will have to wave a golden wand of positivity over yourself afterwards to get rid of the negative fumes this critique will leave behind.
Examples of the Self-Hating Critique:
~ “I don’t know why anyone would try to make their own film. I tried it, and I learned it’s impossible to make a film and work in editing at the same time.”
~ “Oh, he’s having a kid? That sounds like a brilliant idea.”
Remedy to the Self-Hating Critique: Remember it’s not about you.
~ “You’re going to make a film? I tried that once but gave up. But you are so motivated and driven to do this, and I wasn’t. Ask me if you need any help. You’ll be awesome!”
~ “He’s having a baby? Congratulations to him! Babies are wonderful!”
Best Response to the Self-Hating Critique: Smile and nod.
The best critique I’ve received recently was to my article here on SF gentrification. I sent it to a friend for feedback, neglecting to mention that I’d written it. As a result of my anonymity, my friend sent me a scathing review of my draft, some of which I disagreed with, but most of which I found helpful and true.
In effect, my friend with his negative feedback and critiques of my entitlement accomplished exactly what many Critique Givers forget — good critique is a mirror to your actions and their consequences. My friend did not attempt to smooth over my feelings nor fake “superior knowledge” of writing style or politics. Instead, he responded on a personal and honest level.
We will always run into bad feedback, always, but we can learn to make sense of both the Critique Giver and the Critique itself by reflecting on feedback, asking the right questions, and finding any grain of truth within — whether it is the truth about us, the person speaking, or the relationship in-between.
What is the worst critique that you have received? Did you make sense of it?