How do you constructively interact with with hypercritical people?
February 3, 2021 7:49 PM   Subscribe

I would love thoughts on how to establish genuinely productive working relationships with people that habitually point out flaws in everything, while rarely pointing out anything that is positive. Bonus points for thoughts on how to respond to such people when the flaws that they point out are voiced in a snarky manner, or as nonconstructive criticism, rather than pointing out true and fixable problems.
posted by mortaddams to Human Relations (24 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "I figured that would be your perspective, how would you fix it?"

"Those are some interesting points you've raised. If we were to start from scratch, what's the good stuff we could take from this?"

If the thing is problematic for them, that means they should have some idea about how to make it better. Put it back on to them to come up with solutions. Variations of "Okay, then..." is really all you can do with these people.

(Full disclosure: I used to be hypercritical of everything in most contexts, and in a lot of ways still am but I guess I have mellowed because I usually keep it to myself.)
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:43 PM on February 3, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I find it best to go full-blown purely-positive without being sanguine or too nicey-nice (but definitely nice, up unto a point). Remaining neutral and gray rocking are ideal go-tos. Hopefully the person will eventually respect your work ethic. (some people may never get it)

This is critique from a person who is hyper critical and has mostly shifted the critique into just that: constructive critique.

Additionally, if insight is hyper critical, it's helpful to use it like a spice. If you can find a way to do this in your own social interactions, the hyper critical person may notice (consciously or sub), and begin to mirror the behavior back to you.

If you're good, you can get them to tone it down.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:06 PM on February 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

"I also, really, need to know what I should keep doing for next time. Otherwise I can't build on what I'm doing right so far."
posted by amtho at 9:09 PM on February 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love the answers above. Find a way to turn it around and politely demand feedback. Invite them into the problem-solving process, but also highlight anything they didn't criticize -- like "I'm glad you appreciated that I did x. Now, let's get constructive -- what are your specific ideas for for y and z that would really let us rock this as a team? Would love your input."

Stay confident, incorporate as much of their input into your work as you're willing to without compromising your vision, and try not to let yourself be bothered by other peoples' petty insecurities -- but also recognize that some people may be really, really bad at providing feedback in constructive ways, and it may come off as hostile or otherwise ill-intentioned.
posted by erst at 9:14 PM on February 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

*saccharine. Be sanguine, that's fine.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:21 PM on February 3, 2021

Best answer: Hyper critical folk think that they have a unique insight into issues. After all, if you had insight, you would see all of the problems too, wouldn't you? (My mother was proud of being hyper critical because someone once told her that 'almost nobody could be as critical as you' and she took that as a compliment of her unique abilities.*)

So maybe you could ask them to use their insight and perspective to discover the good too. Or, as we do in team meetings sometimes, ask for three good points and three criticisms of X.

*Hyper criticism is a super shitty way to parent.
posted by Thella at 9:38 PM on February 3, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: On a good day, I find helpful to remember that most hypercritical people think that they are doing something positive by pointing out flaws so they can be fixed.

Years ago, I worked with a wonderful contact from a sister organization who was hated by his colleagues because he criticized them constantly. One evening over post-work drinks he told a bunch of us how his parents had insisted that he and his siblings always had to leave every interaction having changed something for the better--which sounds great, but it meant he always had to find something that needed improvement.

On a bad day--well, I wouldn't recommend doing what I did the last time i lost it with a hypercritical person. Asking them "why they can't seem to make space for the idea that they might not be surrounded by idiots every single moment of every day" probably does not do much to foster positive change. Not recommended. (In seriousness, my other advice would be to take a break from such people when they start to get to you, so you don't boil over like I did.)

Don't forget to take care of yourself in all this. People like that can be exhausting and demoralizing, no matter what their intentions are. Keep your own oxygen mask handy.
posted by rpfields at 9:54 PM on February 3, 2021 [11 favorites]

There is hypercritical and then there is obnoxious hypercritical and you sound like you have one of the latter. I'm not convinced you need to respond if you don't want to. What purpose would it serve if the problems are insoluble? It's obvious to everyone (except apparently the criticizer) that they'll never be happy, so you could go grey rock or skip on to the next agenda item.
posted by wnissen at 10:45 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would call them out on it, but with a respectful and courteous tone. Something like this: "You have an excellent eye for detail, but sometimes I feel that your criticism is unwarranted and defeating. It would help me more if you could provide constructive feedback. It would also help my morale if you first identified something positive before you launched into criticism."
posted by kbar1 at 11:20 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

point out flaws in everything, while rarely pointing out anything that is positive

The flaws need fixing. The positives needs no comment because they're obvious. It really depends on if they are right about the flaws. Knowing that there's a flaw doesn't mean that the pointer-out knows how to fix it.

If it's an acceptable flaw tell them it's fine. If it's a flaw you can't fix for reasons then tell them why. If they knew how to fix the flaw they would have actually told you already.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:38 PM on February 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

IMHO, the best way to defuse the situation is just to address the room, in a non-specific way "So what should we do about it? Any one?" It both switches topic off of the b- ching (and thus is a way to shut him up), it also tests if he has something USEFUL to contribute, without calling him on the floor in front of the entire group, i.e. public humiliation.

The more permanent solution depends on WHY they are doing the criticizing, IMHO.

Some people genuinely (naively) believe they were just being "helpful" and any criticism they offer was "constructive". Unfortunately, they are also often "why are you offended by the truth?" and are otherwise tone-deaf. For these people, shift the burden back onto them "So what do we do about it?" will either shut them up, as they never thought about it... or actually elicit some advice, which you can then consider or ignore as necessary.

Some people offer criticism to elevate themselves into the guru / topper / know-it-all / senior pecking order and it's generally a power play, even if they have no real power over you, or are your colleagues, not your superior. In this case, turning the spotlight onto them, not as a platform for their opinions, but asking them for an idea, would again, shock them into silence, as the power play is no longer working. You had subtly took control of the group, at least temporarily.

Some people are just doing office war version of NIMBY aka NIH (not inented here). If he didn't come up with it, it's automatically flawed, and so on. Unfortunately, the only way for those people to contribute to an idea that's not theirs is to order them to accept it, grumpily... or convince them it's their own idea through a bit of pretzel logic, and that may be more trouble than it's worth.
posted by kschang at 12:46 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Some places like "actionable". If they point to something actionable, great, action it. If they point to something non-actionable, you might briefly commiserate on "yep, we all see that but we're not changing it" if that's helpful, but gray-rock past that.

As far a power relations it sounds like this person is a peer? I hope you can be frank with your manager/whatever about extracting what's helpful from this relationship and leaving the rest.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:47 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have found it best to cultivate a very warm and cordial but also distant relationship with these folks. I make a point of always saying hello and greeting these folks and asking how they are doing. I don't get into extended conversations if I can avoid it. I try not to disagree with everything and sort of do the generally affirming thing, "Oh, that's really tough," or "That sounds like a difficult situation." So it's validating to them without my agreeing.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:26 AM on February 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think this only covers a subset of the overall problem that you're trying to solve, but something that's been a huge lightbulb moment for me lately is that when someone's stuck in "we can't do x because of y" mode, treat their statement as a hypothesis, rather than a fact, and see if they're open to testing the hypothesis.

I recently got stuck in a situation at work where a fairly loud/persuasive person who's also pretty critical was convinced a particular software platform wouldn't be good enough for a job we needed it to do, to the point where this was blocking the project.

Reframing the issue as "you have a hypothesis that the platform won't be good enough, which we can test more cheaply by trying it first (as we already have licenses for it) and getting feedback on whether it's good enough or not, rather than going with your preferred (more expensive in terms of time and money) solution, which will significantly block the project" worked like magic. The person in question immediately agreed that we could try the cheaper/faster method if we were open to treating it like an experiment and gathering data on whether the issues they foresaw were actually causing real problems for real users.

I could not believe how elegantly this approached reframed their objection from something I couldn't see how to get round without a fight or being extremely directive with them, into something we can bake into our project approach and attempt to validate (or not) along the way.
posted by terretu at 2:38 AM on February 4, 2021 [17 favorites]

My advice is to reduce your contact with them. This stuff is not good for you over the long term.
posted by slidell at 3:51 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have found through exposure to leaders in a wide range of fields that hypercritical behaviour by managers is centred on one or more of five developments:
1. Real and/or relative inexperience of the critic in the field in which they manage or interface with.
2. The "What I know, I know" hypothesis. That a manager's idealistic or romantic view of a project is more important than actual project management realities, including change which is occurring or has occurred which they are abusing or otherwise not accepting.
3. A manager has been caught in a situation where their own poor management or dishonesty has come to light.
4. The manager's delegation of a task is incomplete because they and the delegate(s) have no idea what needs to be true for the project to be finished.
5. The manager is very experienced but is unable to delegate because they don't know to accept mutual or subordinate responsibility for actions they want to own.

In all these cases, employees are unable to solve the problems and should not be expected to do so. You should not try, either.
posted by parmanparman at 4:20 AM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

This would be tough to pull off and depend a lot on how much political/social capital you have at your workplace, but if something is mentioned in a snarky way, can you respond as if completely genuine? In other words, if Critical Person says "There's no way this is getting off the ground on time" as a snarky comment, can you respond with "Person, I'm concerned that you think we won't meet the deadline. What do you think is going to hold us up? What's a more realistic timeline? Maybe we can work with the client to amend the scope or the project timeline." Or if CP says "The copy on this webpage is just awful" could you respond with "We do need to make sure the copy is getting our message across. Where do you think we are missing the mark?"

If I'm capturing the tone of the kinds of criticism you're receiving - there's a lot of it, but it's vague and snarky rather than specific and constructive - then trying to MAKE it specific and constructive can sometimes pull the person out of their dismissive/pessimistic mindset. And long term, it could make them feel like their input is valuable which could turn them around, attitude-wise. Of course, this all works best if the person is more like a peer than a manager or direct supervisor. And if you're instead being buried by specific but low-ROI or unfixable critiques, this wouldn't be the right approach.
posted by misskaz at 5:01 AM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I recognize myself in your question. I've become the snarky pointer-outer of flaws, who doesn't offer anything helpful or positive. (I know this about myself and am working on it in therapy.)

I can tell you how I got to this point. Maybe it will give you some insight?

When I first started at my job (15+ years ago), I didn't know much, but I kept my head down and learned to do my job, and at this point, I do it very well. I also eventually learned a lot about how things work on the ground - how a decision made at some random layer of upper management would have cascading effects all down the hierarchy. Unfortunately, my organization is well-known for having a revolving-door of middle and upper management. We also tend to have poor communication within and across divisions. So every new manager who comes in to beef up their resume for a few years makes the same damn mistakes every time. They refuse to listen to me or the other old-timers, who have seen it before and know the consequences.

At some point within the last two years, I gave up trying. And now my contributions in meetings tend toward the snark, because I honestly feel as if no one is listening anyway, so why bother investing myself in problem-solving, when it's just wasted effort? I hate that I'm now thought of as just a cranky nay-sayer, but ... burnout is a thing, I guess.

I can't tell from your question if the snarkers are your managers or peers or people who report to you, but if they are peers or reports, I suggest a one-on-one meeting where you actually listen to the ideas in that layer below the snark, and then see if you can incorporate those ideas into whatever your plan is. And then try to find a way to give them some public credit if the plan goes well.

Good luck!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:54 AM on February 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Hm. I used to be pretty critical, although not relentlessly negative and definitely never snarky, which it sounds like your person may be. But still: let me describe to you what it feels like to be like that, and what worked to disarm me.

When I was critical, it was because I was worried. Like, I was worried that we were failing at something or about to embark on some terrible mistake, and for whatever reason nobody was paying attention to that. So if I said something critical and got what felt like a pollyanna response (like "no no we're totally fine, don't worry") it made me feel worse not better. In extreme cases it would feel like gaslighting, and at best it would confirm my suspicion that the other person was naive or didn't give a shit.

I feel like what can work to disarm the critical person is acknowledgement of their concerns. Like "yes, X is definitely a possibility, and if X happens we'll need to consider doing Y." Importantly I don't think you need to have an actual rock-solid solution to the problem. I don't think that's what the critical person is looking for. The critical mindset kind of doesn't believe in airtight solutions and doesn't expect you to have them. In fact, being presented with a "perfect" plan is I think what triggers their problem-identifying tendencies. Which they see as helpful, and which can in fact be helpful if accepted without defensiveness.

Upshot I think the critical person wants reassurance that everybody has a realistic perception of the situation and that nobody is waltzing around assuming stuff will be easy. So I think you disarm them by agreeing with them, not by debating or attempting to rebut them. Critical people see problems as normal and unavoidable, not as extraordinary or horrible or needing extreme mitigation.

Again though I am assuming your critical person is operating in good faith; if they're not, this may not be helpful. Good luck :)
posted by Susan PG at 6:18 AM on February 4, 2021 [11 favorites]

"Some places like "actionable". If they point to something actionable, great, action it. If they point to something non-actionable, you might briefly commiserate on "yep, we all see that but we're not changing it" if that's helpful, but gray-rock past that."

I can second this.

I find when placing critique, if it isn't done at the right time, the person may shut down or resent you. I think it could work well to emphasize your time/team time, as well as *the work. If this person begins interjecting baseless or unuseful criticism, it may be very effective to flatly warn them they're wasting everyone's time (in the nicest way possible).

Other questions:
How is this relevant to our work?
How is this relevant to our time?

Potential counters:
What does this have to do with XYZ?
Yes, but is this an effective use of the time we have today?

If pitched correctly, the person may feel taken aback and realize they don't have the authority or experience to call the shots they're trying to call.
This could also hopefully shake them out of any personal or subjective state they're in, reminding them the time really* is about the work*, as opposed to scouting vulnerabilities.

A lot of critical critique rests around creating strength, an overly critical person is likely seeking areas of strength or to create strength in a situation: the quality can potentially evolve into a strong suit.
posted by firstdaffodils at 8:58 AM on February 4, 2021

Best answer: One of the places I work had a standing rule that you couldn't offer up a complaint/critique without offering a potential solution, which cut down tremendously on the snarking.

This is one of those self-help books that seems like it's going to be bullshit but really is helpful. It's extremely short. The crux of it is when you're getting into it with high-conflict people, ask, "So what's your proposal?" It's a way of hitting the ball back into their court without being rude about it and invites them to contribute if they want to contribute rather than complain. And if all they want to do is complain, leaving them sitting in awkward silence a few times tends to break the habit.

A companion to this is the idea of "scope." So if they want to complain, I dunno, about the company culture or how everything gets screwed up, you can say, "Okay, I understand, but this meeting is to do XYZ and overhauling the entire company culture is out of scope for that. What can we do about XYZ?"

I have found "Okay" to be a magic word if you don't put a snarky/mean inflection on it. It makes people feel heard and like you agree with them, even if you're just using it to acknowledge what they said.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:07 AM on February 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

Hmm I'm a little surprised by the number of long winded responses, my first impulse was something along the lines of what slidell said ..just try and minimize the damage they can do to you. I guess it depends on the person, though, and the degree of the problem.
posted by elgee at 11:26 AM on February 4, 2021

Best answer: At least in a software development organization, I find critical/snarky personalities to be a good signal of when something needs to be paid attention to. They can spot the flaws and not be too polite to point them out. If they are used to being in an organization that doesn't listen to people they might not be used to actually turning their snark into actionable feedback. But if you can do some of the tactics described in above responses, it can be more valuable than having a team of yes-persons and blundering into disaster unawares.
posted by matildaben at 3:59 PM on February 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ronald Reagan was fantastic at this (I despise him and his politics). There you go again... with the snark and the nitpicking. He was good at comebacks and remaining a buddy.

Silence is okay. If someone makes an annoying statement that they've made before and the response is gonna be canned, let it slide with no response. Silence can create discomfort and it works better to be nonchalant and willing to ignore the obnoxious comment.

People snark, jab, and are aggressive because they think it gets them points to aggravate you. Do not let them win. Be willing to be a bit aggressive right back. (pause) You know, you complain about this meeting every week. We still have to attend the meeting every week. perhaps you'd like to acknowledge the inevitable and not annoy me by complaining today. or something like that.
posted by theora55 at 4:16 PM on February 4, 2021

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