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."
This quote explains why some people find it easy to speak uplifting words to the people in their lives, while others do not.
If you tend to speak critically to your employees, customers, friends or family members, 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.
But criticism tears down the other person.
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.
The problem is, 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 a little consideration for me?
Why don’t you just quit [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.
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.
If you have a deep conviction that you matter, you will find it easier to activate compassion and patience instead of criticism for the people you work with and care about.
In The New Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz summarizes a key benefit of finding ways to affirming others instead of finding fault with them: “Practice treating other people as if they had value, and surprisingly, your own self-esteem will go up.”