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Rules For Effective Criticism

Updated: Jan 14

Most of us would like to hear more words of affirmation, praise, and appreciation, and we dislike hearing criticisms. Given this fact, we should reflect on ourselves: do we say more words of affirmation, praise, and appreciation, or do we say more words of criticism? What goes around comes around, so it's important to treat others the way we want to be treated.


Even though most of us dislike hearing criticism, it's actually important and helpful to receive criticism. Imagine if you had a big dirty spot on your face. You cannot see it. Don't you wish other people would tell you so that you could wipe it clean?

Similarly, we are all human, so we all have faults and problems. Oftentimes, it's easier for other people to see our faults. If others tell us, then we can fix our faults and become better. If they don't tell us, we keep getting harmed by our faults without even realizing it. That's why successful people are humble and appreciative of criticism.


For example, billionaire investor Ray Dalio said,

"When a problem stems from your own lack of talent or skill, most people feel shame. Get over it. I cannot emphasize this enough: Acknowledging your weaknesses is not the same as surrendering to them. It's the first step toward overcoming them."


Emperor Tang, who is known as one of the best emperors in Chinese history, said

"If I make others feel bad for trying to criticize me, then people would be scared to advise me in the future."


Given how important and beneficial criticism can be, we should all be aware of some do's and don'ts for criticisms:

Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

If we can follow these rules, then our criticism would be viewed as caring advice instead of venting annoyance.

1: Be helpful, not hurtful.

Helpful criticism does not attack the person's character, but rather focuses on how to improve. It is kind and respectful and focuses on helping the other person. On the other hand, hurtful criticism attacks the person's character without giving any hope for the future. It is rude and damages relationships.

Examples of hurtful criticism:

  • "What's wrong with you! Your report had so many errors!"

  • "How could you forget a promise? You're such a liar."


Examples of helpful criticism:

  • "Your report had many small errors, and that might be because you were too rushed or unfocused. To improve next time, you should finish a draft earlier and get someone to check it before submission."

  • "When you don’t keep a small promise, I feel hurt and doubt if I can trust you in the future. I know it was probably unintentional, but I sincerely ask you to take small promises more seriously in the future.


If you're like me, you might be thinking, "OK I get it. I want people to give me helpful criticism. But most people just complain without giving any suggestions or solutions." Yes, that's true, but this is about us, not them. If we want to be a mature person, we need to focus on setting a good example to influence others rather than hoping others will set a good example to influence us. We can be the hero of our lives, or be a victim, the choice is ours.

Truly good friends, colleagues, and leaders will give us helpful constructive criticism because they want the best for us. Since like attracts like, if we want to attract these kinds of people into our lives, then we need to be someone who gives constructive criticism.

2: Be calm, not emotional.

A lot of times, people will criticize when annoyed, upset, or angry. That never turns out well. Thus, it's really important for us to improve our emotional self-awareness. We need to be able to catch ourselves when we feel upset, and then stop our mouth from speaking hurtful words.


According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, when we get very emotional during a difficult conversation, our heart rate will increase a lot. When this happens, both sides should take a 20 minute break. Although 5 minutes may feel enough, the actual physiological recovery time needs 20 minutes.


So if we start feeling upset and our heart rate starts rising, we can say to the other person, "Can we talk about this later when we are both calmer? Like 20 minutes later?" or "I need to go to the bathroom" and then do some deep breathing.


Once we are calmer, we can reflect on what exactly we are upset about and how we wish they would behave next time. This way, we can give helpful criticism instead of a hurtful one. Moreover, we should reflect on our contribution to the conflict and apologize for that first. If we can't take responsibility for our own faults, then we can't ask other people to take responsibility for their faults. If we apologize first, the other person is much more likely to reciprocate and apologize too, and the conversation can become constructive.

3: Be humble and cautious. Don't be too confident.

Have you ever given logical advice in a calm manner, but the other person got annoyed at you? I have, and I was utterly confused. I later learned that it's because I seemed quite arrogant to the other person. Why? Because in my mind, I felt like I am definitely right, and he is definitely wrong, so my tone of voice naturally seemed arrogant to him.


No one likes an arrogant person. When we seem arrogant, then even if our advice is good, the other person will resist or argue simply because they don't like us. So many arguments are illogical, it's just people trying to defeat the other person because they don't like the other person's arrogant demeanor. Before we give advice or criticism, we need to inspect our intentions and beliefs.

As mentioned before, our intention should be to help the other person, not to vent anger. After we are sure that our intention is to be helpful, we should inspect our beliefs. If we believe that we are definitely right, and that they are definitely wrong, then we are being arrogant and uncareful.


How? Because people are infinitely complicated, and situations are infinitely complex. There's no way we understand this person or the situation completely, so there's no way our advice is definitely right or fully suitable. When we keep this at the top of mind, we will naturally be more humble and careful in my speech and demeanor.


We should also be sensitive to their ego and not make them feel attacked. Even better is if we can make them feel good and respected.

Examples of arrogant criticism:

  • "Your method is inefficient. You should use my method."

  • "That was a stupid decision. You need to remember XYZ next time."

  • "Why do you always overthink everything and cause unnecessary stress?"


Examples of humble suggestions:

  • "I noticed that your method might be a bit time consuming. I use another method that you could try. I don't know if you have specific reasons for choosing your method, or if my method will be fully suitable for you though. It's just a suggestion."

  • "It looks like that decision didn't turn out as planned. I'm sure you thought about the decision carefully, but next time you could consider XYZ to help you make better decisions."

  • "I admire how you carefully think about everything. I think it would be even more admirable if you can add decisiveness to your list of strengths."


By being humble, we reduce the risk of creating conflict with others. Moreover, everyone likes and wants to help humble people.

4: Choose the right time and setting.

Even if we have a calm mind, a caring intention, and a humble attitude, if the timing and setting are wrong, the result will still be bad. The Chinese philosopher Kun Lu (吕坤) gave seven inappropriate situations to criticize or scold others:

  1. Don't criticize them in public

  2. Don't criticize them if they already feel remorse

  3. Don't criticize before sleep time

  4. Don’t criticize before or during meals

  5. Don't criticize when they are feeling very joyous

  6. Don't criticize if they are feeling depressed

  7. Don't criticize when they are ill

I would add one more: Don't criticize when they are clearly busy or rushed for time.

Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

From these examples, we can see that good criticism is caring. We don't criticize people publicly because they'll feel extremely embarrassed or ashamed, and they'll resent you. But it's fine to give praise publicly. We don't criticize people if they feel remorse, depressed, or ill because what they need at that time is encouragement and hope. We don't criticize before eating or sleeping because that will ruin their appetite and make it hard for them to fall asleep. We don't criticize when they are really happy because that will ruin their good mood, and major mood swings can hurt the heart.


Ideally, we give criticism in a calm and comfortable setting. It's also preferable to give criticism in person rather than over email or message, which brings us to the next point.


5: Observe their reaction and adjust accordingly.

After we've gone through the above steps, we are ready to give the criticism. Ideally, we do it in person because we want to observe their reaction. If we think "I don't want to see their reaction", then perhaps we need to adjust ourselves. We can ask ourselves, "If I were on the receiving end of my criticism, would I feel it is a fair and kind criticism?"


Doing the above steps will help us to maximize the chances of the other person accepting our criticism happily, but there's no way to guarantee that. If we give the criticism and they start arguing, we need to adjust accordingly. Our goal is to provide a helpful suggestion or to make a humble request. Our goal is not to start an argument. We should remain humble and try to understand what we misunderstood about them or the situation.


Remember that it takes two to argue. As long as we maintain a non-confrontation attitude, even if the other person is confrontational, no argument can arise. The moment we become confrontational with them, an argument will be born. Besides, if other people criticize us, don't we want to explain ourselves? Don't we want to have a discussion about the accuracy of their criticism? Then we should be prepared for the other person to be the same when we give criticism.


6: Be patient.

Again, we can reflect on ourselves. When others criticize us, are we able to happily accept it the first time? Or do we need some time to digest the feedback?


If the other person is stubborn that they are right and we are wrong, we shouldn't keep debating with them. Oftentimes, people have a sensitive ego or stubborn views, so they can't accept criticism in the moment. We should not be impatient for immediate results, or demand them to change right now. That would just annoy them, and we would be upset when they don't listen. Our goal is not to "defeat" them, but rather to say what needs to be said in the best way possible. Later, when they calm down, they'll see some truth in our words, but that takes time.


Moreover, if we truly want the best for them, we can try again in the future, when the conditions are ripe to raise this topic again. How many times we try again depends on the relationship. If we are very close to them, such as immediate family, it's worthwhile to admonish them many many times. But if the relationship is not that close, such as with friends or colleagues, then we could try three times.



Good criticism would be viewed as caring advice, and it is one of the greatest gifts we can give and receive. Bad criticism is viewed as venting annoyance, and unfortunately is common. Before giving criticism, we should ask ourselves:

  1. Is my intention to be helpful? Or just to complain?

  2. Am I calm or emotional right now?

  3. Do I think I am better than them? Am I being arrogant?

  4. Is the time and setting suitable?


During the conversation, we need to remember that "it takes two to argue", so as long as we never get confrontational, no argument can arise. We also need to be patient and give them time to digest our feedback rather than expecting them to accept and apologize right away. Depending on the relationship, we may need to admonish many times.


The art of criticism is deep and complex, but if we can do it well, our relationships will be much better, and others will greatly appreciate us.


Weekly Wisdom #271

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