Criticism, Belief, and Experience
June 14, 2014 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any advice about taking criticism is a healthy manner? Whether it be work, your home life, or some other venue, taking criticism seems to be an important skill. When people who I do not know very well offer criticism or unsolicited advice I can have a hard time with it, if I'm not sure whether what they are telling me is solid or not. Which leads me to my next question about how much of what someone tells you do you take on faith versus trusting your own experiences?

There are all sorts of things that I don't know much about, so it can be hard to know whether someone is talking at a level that I just don't comprehend from lack of experience. There isn't enough time to study everything and know about everything, so how do you decide on whether or not the person you are talking to is offering good advice?
posted by nidora to Human Relations (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are they successful? Most successful people like to see other people succeed, and their advice will be well-motivated and at least somewhat valuable.

Do they have a tangible stake in you doing well -- i.e., are they a boss, co-worker, business partner, someone you're paying to coach you? Here the intentions will be likely be good, and the motivation to give good advice even more clear -- but the actual reliability of the advice is going to vary.

If someone is neither successful nor invested in your success -- you can safely disregard.
posted by MattD at 9:40 AM on June 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Can you give an example of the type of advice/criticism you've gotten from people who don't know you well, and who gave it? I'm having trouble thinking of times I've gotten that type of feedback. In the workplace, I'm more likely to act on advice given from a boss that I respect and think truly does their own work well.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:47 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you always route suggestions through the lens of your own experience. There are those you can allow into your trusted circle whom you can give more weight to their suggestions, but at the end of the day, the healthy thing to do is to not absorb all criticism received, but to say thank you for your suggestion and that you will think about it. At that point, "take what works and leave the rest" is a pretty good life mantra when it comes to this kind of thing.

The reason that you shouldn't take everything on faith, even if you don't trust your own perception, is because at the end of the day, not everyone is as well put together as we sometimes think on the surface. Sometimes people critique out of selfish motivation, and sometimes they are making suggestions through the lens of their own experience. Sometimes people we trust give us bad advice. Sometimes it's good advice too, though, so this is why practicing self-awareness and understanding what our own needs and shortcomings are is as important as recognizing your strengths. It allows you to be more clinical about it, too, instead of taking it personally. Because at the end of the day, all of us are simply trying to figure this whole thing out together.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:48 AM on June 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I can think of a number of times when people have been trying to persuade me about a topic. I am not a parent yet, but I remember talking with a guy and he was really big on disciplining his son because his son was getting into trouble. He was very proud of the fact that he whooped his son and he believed in that fully. I am not arguing that hitting a child or not hitting a child is right or wrong, because they can both be right depending on the type and degree of trouble that someone is getting into, but I'm of the general opinion that physical punishment is a last resort.

I've also talked with people about religion and reincarnation and I've heard some extreme views on this as well. For all I know there could be this whole thing that I am one hundred percent ignorant to but that does indeed exist. When it comes to topics like this I struggle because it requires faith and I am not sure whether someone is truly trying to explain something they have experienced or whether they were indoctrinated at a young age and hence have these beliefs.
posted by nidora at 9:56 AM on June 14, 2014

I've spent a lot of times participating in screenwriting groups where people critique each others work, sometimes harshly.

The main rule of thumb was always: If one person says it, you can probably ignore it. If multiple people give the same note, you better listen.

In your case, maybe you're only getting advice from one person at a time, so that makes it tough.

The other thing I ended up doing was giving myself permission to ignore any advice that was delivered in a mean-spirited or malicious way. Can someone deliver advice in a mean way that is also correct? Yes, it's possible. But if it seemed like the person was more into hurting my feelings than helping me, I figured I'd ignore it and, if it was good advice, someone would give it again later in a nicer way. If I can't tell if it's good advice or just someone getting their rocks off by being a jerk, I err on the side of trusting myself and doing what feels good, which is ignoring those kind of people.

In any endeavor, it's always a razor-thin line between being open to criticism and trusting yourself. Be too closed and you'll disappear into your own butt. Be too open and you'll never accomplish anything because you're always running in circles trying to please the latest person you talked to.

As I said above, there's no easy answer, but to me it boils down to finding objective, knowledgeable people who want to help you in good faith. It's also nice to find people who want to help you find solutions, rather than going "You suck lol" and running off.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:02 AM on June 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sorry, my answer was more about taking criticism, and I see you're talking more about belief systems.

In that case I'd say: Decide for yourself. Do research, look at the world. Things like religion are so totally subjective that, whether someone was "indoctrinated" or not, it's still just their opinion. And obviously the world is full of people who have vastly vastly different views on religion.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:04 AM on June 14, 2014

Just because someone opens the door to the discussion, doesn't mean you have to accept the invite or reveal your own views.

Example 1
Guy: I whoop my son and I'm proud to say I do.
You: Huh. Warm weather today. I hear it's going to rain tomorrow. (Surreptitiously check kid for bruises)
Guy: I strongly affirm my right to whoop.
You: Hey, there's Bob. I'm going to say hello. Catch you later.

Example 2
Extremist: I'm seeing a past-life regression therapist, and I just found out that I used to be a lady-in-waiting to Cleopatra!!
Choose your own adventure:
1) Really? What was it like? (roll with it and see why some ppl are into this stuff)
2) Honestly I'm a skeptic and don't believe in that stuff. (prepare for long and frustrating convo)
3) Huh, that's interesting (rinse and repeat until you excuse yourself).

If you're genuinely curious, ask for books and resources that you can look into later. Then go home and google the opposing viewpoint. "Jim Jones AND criticism OR fraud OR scam". You don't have to make a decision on everything right away. You can do some research and let it all percolate.
posted by bunderful at 10:05 AM on June 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

For criticism: If someone says something to me that hurts, the right response is "thank you", because I value their opinion enough to make it hurt, and clearly their perception of me doesn't match my perception of me. Changing that to be my automatic response, to say "thank you" rather than "yeah, but..." has been very valuable.

For belief structures: You can't fix stupid. Whoopin's and whatnot are willfully ignorant, and if you find a way to fix that we'd all like to know how.
posted by straw at 10:08 AM on June 14, 2014

Which leads me to my next question about how much of what someone tells you do you take on faith versus trusting your own experiences?

I don't think I really answered your question, let me try this again. A lot depends on whether you trust the person. I generally would say don't take things on faith unless you know the person well enough to be confident in their knowledge on the subject. Do some research, ask other people what they think, get lots of info.

In some cases it's just not that important. You can put "Bob says cows are more intelligent than dolphins" in it's own little memory bank without actually assigning your own belief one way or another.
posted by bunderful at 10:10 AM on June 14, 2014

Best answer: When people who I do not know very well offer criticism or unsolicited advice I can have a hard time with it

A great deal of unsolicited advice can be ignored. Even if they are successful and knowledgeable, if you do not know them well, they likely do not know you well. Advice is best when it is given for specific issues after sharing a lot of the details. People offering their unsolicited advice often have poor boundaries and are just, basically, behaving badly in many, many cases. The same with criticism.

I've also talked with people about religion and reincarnation and I've heard some extreme views on this as well.

I happen to believe in reincarnation. I am not trying to talk to you into believing in it but you have given a specific example so I will address that to give you a specific example back. I hope it will help demonstrate some principles.

When someone tells me they believe in reincarnation and they think that in a past life they were some random dude who happened to be good with a bow and this is why they think they like archery, I am inclined to think that is somehow meaningful and inclined to just take their word for it. When they start telling me they are the reincarnation of X specific important historic figure, I am inclined to be a good deal more skeptical.

If reincarnation is real, there have been many more ordinary people than there have been important historic figures documented in our history books. Yet, it seems really common for people talking about it to swear they were some important identifiable historic figure. So I am inclined to suspect that people doing that are basically trying to stroke their own ego and say "I know I am nobody in the here and now BUT I USED TO BE SUPER IMPORTANT AND YOU SHOULD RESPECT/KOWTOW TO ME!" And I kind of feel pretty "meh" in reaction to that. Like, um, so why don't you do something more important now to earn that respect you want?

There are a couple of principles in there that generalize:

1) Statistical likelihood. Yes, if something happens 1 in a million times, there are like 6000 people or so on the planet who had that happen to them but you shouldn't personally be running into vast numbers of those people unless there is a convention in town for those specific people with that specific weird thing. (Which does happen sometimes and I have seen some humorous stories to that effect but most of the time that is not what is going on.)

2) What's their motive? What are they getting out of it? In the example you gave of the guy talking about spanking their kid, hey, he is basically justifying his behavior. His justification for his own choices doesn't necessarily have any bearing on whether or not it is a good policy at all, much less a good policy for you in particular.
posted by Michele in California at 10:21 AM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's always okay to hold beliefs in tension until you have enough evidence to make a decision. Many of the smartest people do this and aren't afraid to say when things are outside of their areas of expertise. On those things that are important, it's okay to do research on your own before coming to a conclusion, taking into account the opinion of others. What I've found is that people's anecdotal evidence can be helpful, and sometimes persuasive, but not always the whole ball of wax. If this is causing some tension in your relationships, you can approach conversations as a sort of evidence gathering process. Ask questions and even be upfront by saying that you are aware that there are various ways of looking at things, and you would love to get their opinion. Then thank people for sharing and let them know that you'll weigh their experience as you come to a conclusion.

I think this was mentioned before, but people like to talk, and they often like to help. And asking questions is a great way to interact if you feel somewhat introverted. You might think of going about this without feeling that you need to have a hard conclusion in order to have a good conversation. For example, everyone loves Mr. Rodgers, and one of his approaches to relationships was to try and find out everything he could about people, because he found them inherently interesting. I think you could leverage an approach like this not only to not feel compelled to have a plethora of opinions on a lot of things, but to feel comfortable interacting if you feel more introverted. It's like Mr. Rodgers was made for the introvert in all of us. In some sense, it's easy to care about people according to this model, and built into it is a mechanism in which we are appreciated in returned, because who doesn't like to be cared for?
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:27 PM on June 14, 2014

First off, consider the source. If that person who is always ordering take out and whose cupboard is stocked with cereal is trying to give you cooking advice, a great reply would be: "Hmm, that's interesting. I'll have to check that out sometime. Thanks for the tip. Oh hey, have you been to Luigi's yet? I heard the menu is wonderful." And maybe you will look it up and learn more, or not. Maybe it's a good tip, or not. You've acknowledged their contribution to the conversation, you can move on. If the person is a successful chef and gives you cooking advice, you would probably be wise to take it, ask questions, and try to learn more from them.

Generally, you have to decide how much of yourself and your opinions you want to share with people. There are a couple of topics that are good to stay away from when you are with acquaintances vs. good friends or trusted colleagues. Religion, politics, and money are the big three I was taught to avoid, but there are many other topics that polarize people - Mefi even has its own set of 'topics that usually don't go well'. Some people don't practice this rule and will make sure that every person they come in contact with has to know their opinion on every little thing.

I would put the 'spanking' topic in the category of topics that polarize. Since you don't have children, you could have replied, "Hmm, that's interesting. I don't have children so I wouldn't know the first thing. I guess I'll have to decide that some day. But hey, did you have any of this crab dip? It's delicious!"

If you did have children and have the opinion you stated above, you could have replied, "Personally, I only spank my child as a last resort, but every parent has to do what works for them. Honestly my bigger problem is getting them to eat their veggies. Do you have a strategy that works?" Again, you've acknowledged their contribution, but this time stated your opinion without judging their opinion. If you get stuck in one of these polarizing conversations, try to not use judgey language (qualifiers like good/bad/better/worse or words like should/must/need to) in your replies to people and they will be less inclined to criticize your belief or try to change your mind. For things you don't know about, admit it, it's totally ok to not know everything about everything: "I'm not familiar with 13th century renaissance painters, when did you first become interested in them?"

As I mentioned, religion and other spiritual beliefs are ones to stay away from with acquaintances. But if you are with close friends, and you are comfortable with them and you are truly curious, just ask questions. "Oh cool, when did you come to believe in this? Where can I learn more? Are there any books you'd suggest?" Then do that and try to learn more on your own. Again, especially with these topics, consider the source of the information. Then next time you see them, "Hey, I read that book you suggested, it was very enlightening," and now you'll have something to discuss with them which will inform your opinions on the topic.

Finally, you may have noticed but for several of the examples I gave, I included deflections and attempts to change the topics. You may want to come up with your own. Mine include asking them questions about the weather, restaurants, movies/tv/books, human interest stories, and situations (delicious dip/the restaurant's quirky deco/their cool laptop bag). If you ask a question, as opposed to making just a comment, they'll have to reply, which usually changes the subject.
posted by NoraCharles at 12:30 PM on June 14, 2014

It is a matter of what is at stake for the critic or adviser and for the recipient of criticism. If neither has much personal involvement to the issue, then it is just academic speculation, entertaining hypotheses for the fun of it and for practice.

In your both examples the other party had lots of investment in the issue, but you didn't: one who praises physical punishment cannot afford to think that he is abusing his child, and cannot afford that you think that he is abusing his child. Also religious people cannot really budge from their beliefs because of single conversation. You are still free to wonder around the topic, but it can be fustrating for the other party if you audibly use that freedom. This is why it is usually better to deflect and move to other topics.

Or to reiterate: when somebody expresses strong beliefs on matters of great personal importance to them, you should take as a fact that the person has made himself this property, that he beliefs that x, and any discussion about x is questioning that person's identity. Changing this property of a person would be a long project.

Then the other part is that what you are getting out of somebody's belief. You recognize that you don't believe x, or haven't really thought of it. There are two common attitudes: 1) it is not a matter of importance to me and I can entertain that idea x for this conversation and then let it fall back to dubiousness and recognize that I now know more about x and how people believe in x. 2) Worry that it may be an inadequacy in you, something you have missed. Then it is a matter of looking at the whole package: you see what the critic is like: accepting x is becoming a bit like him. It is not that you make an evaluation about x, you make an evaluation if you want to be a person who believes in x. You don't need to use only your limited knowledge about x, but you can use all of your social and cultural understanding to evaluate if you want to be part of this.

Note how (2) taken to extreme sounds like joining a cult: it is an approach that is vulnerable to charismatic actors who may have a flimsy x, but are convincing as something you want to be and belong to. For this reason being open to criticism is often best reserved to safe environments where you have already agreed to the goals of the program on some level: schools, courses, training etc. with senior employees, teachers, peer scientists etc. Do (2) only in those safe environments where you have chosen to go by yourself.
posted by Free word order! at 5:35 AM on June 15, 2014

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