Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Giving Criticism: Knowing When to Get Out of the Way

Years ago, I enrolled in a class through the UCLA Film and Television Department.  The purpose was to come up with a strong pitch for our film or television concept.  It was a small group of maybe five or six people, and the instructor was a former content advisor at one of the major networks.  Why "former" I never thought to question.

Within two weeks, it became clear that our instructor had very set ideas about "good" concepts.  We listened and followed his advice because he was the expert.  Then when we brought our changes to him the next week, instead of commenting on how well the changes worked, he found something new to criticize.  No problem.  We would just keep revising until we satisfied him.

Except that it turned out "satisfying" him meant conforming to his vision.  If you had a different idea, you were destined for failure.  One student absorbed his vision readily -- he was an admirer who had taken previous classes with the instructor.  The rest of us struggled.

One student had an idea that he was very excited about, but needed some work.  Each week, he listened to the instructor's criticisms and revised his concept.  Yet each week, the instructor wanted something completely new.  The student revised willingly at first, then with more resentment, as the idea became less his, yet he was no closer to pleasing this man.  Finally, in the middle of class, muttering a string of curses under his breath, he left for good.  Maybe he managed to pitch it with success, or maybe his dream lay in fragments forever.  Either way, it revealed with disturbing clarity the damage that "mentors" can do when they abuse their power.        

Most of us would claim that we give criticism for selfless reasons: to help the other person improve.  We give our time and ask for nothing in return.  For that reason, we should have the freedom to be as harsh as necessary, while the one who sought us out must be humble, absorbing our words like a sponge.

In fact, most of us have given criticism for the wrong reasons.  The most typical: we want to matter as human beings.  We want our advice to show that we're important, if not superior to the person seeking it.  If we did not have superior judgment, why would other people care about our opinion in the first place?

We also give criticism to ward off fear.  "I would never do that..."  "I would never have done that..."  "If I were in that woman's position..."  Whenever we see ill-advised behavior, we want to believe that we never would have made those mistakes, that our actions keep us safe.  Criticizing someone else helps us remember what not to do.    

Yet another reason: tribal bonding.  A group of insecure people can always bond over an outsider's faux pas.  "Oh my God, can you believe her shoes?"  "He wouldn't last one day doing our job!"  "They're not from around here, are they?"  Focusing our attention on the luckless outsider diverts attention from our flaws, at least for now.

While such criticism is understandable, it is in no way laudable.  The person on the receiving end should not feel "pleased" or "honored" by the abuse.  The world isn't Gordon Ramsay's kitchen, where spirits must be shattered before individuals can be molded into winners.  Snark, superiority, and abusive words are not required for people to change.

Too many "mentors" and "helpful types" don't get this because they confuse support with control.  That goes back to the most typical wrong reason for criticism -- I Want to Matter.  They want their criticism to make a difference in the receiver's life, whether or not that difference is a good one.  If they hurt the other person, that means They Matter.  If they force the other person to conform to their own vision, They Matter.

Because in truth, a critic has very little power.  He or she could give thoughtful advice, based on years of hard-won experience, and the receiver can turn a deaf ear.  The critic cannot force the receiver to take the advice; all he or she can do is wait.

People who give selfless advice understand and accept this.  They really do want to help, but are willing to step back and let the other person lead his or her own life.  Because it is the other person's life.

"But my time is valuable!  If I give advice, I expect it to be followed!" is a frequent attitude.  And a mistaken one.  First it's mistaken because again, the critic makes it about himself.  Second, it's just flat-out wrong.  Most of us give our criticisms and advice freely -- everywhere.  Whether it is on a sports message board criticizing an athlete's play, or in the comments section of a news article, we spend hours criticizing without ever being asked.  Our reward is superiority.

A critic who has thoroughly gone over another's work has the right to feel hurt if his suggestions are ignored, but that does not mean he is "owed" anything.  If that is how you feel, unless you critique for money, you should probably steer clear of giving criticism.

But if you do want to offer advice or criticism, here are some suggestions that you are not obligated to follow:

1.  Treat the other person like your equal.  Even if he or she is not your equal, treat that person with respect.  Act like that person's goals matter even if they differ from yours.

2.  Give constructive feedback.  If you criticize, don't just do drive-by snark that makes the receiver feel bad, without giving ideas of how situation can be improved.  Also, avoid broad, hysterical pronouncements that you have no authority to make, like: "This is the WORST THING EVER!"

3.  Know what you're talking about.  I generally seek advice from those who have experienced my dilemma, but in cases where feedback is more open, don't speak unless you understand the problem.  If you just like to shoot your mouth off, keep it closed.

4.  Get out of the way.  Once you have given your advice or criticism, let the person know that you are there if they need anything else, and go on your way.             

The photos above were taken by Nevit Dilmen and Lensim respectively, and should not be viewed as an endorsements of this post.


  1. Giving a critique is tough. I never expect a writer to take my advice without first reflecting on it and seeing if it works for them. All I want to do is let them know what doesn't work for me and why. It may work for them or other readers.
    I used to give some in-depth private critiques but unfortunately most writers were pretty thankless and prickly so I don't do it any longer.
    I restrict myself to a few writers' forums and critique as a form of relaxation. Works out much better!

    1. Hi Linnea:

      Your approach sounds like a good one. Some think that adding niceties like "this is just my opinion" are pointless, but they can mean everything. It's too bad you didn't receive a more positive response for your efforts. I definitely don't intend for my essay to suggest that genuine efforts to give in-depth, helpful feedback should be disregarded -- just that critics should maintain perspective when they critique.