Communication and Critical Thinking
August 1, 2006 6:52 PM   Subscribe

Help me bridge critical thought with communication. I can be critical of everything in life, including myself and other people. One problem is some people do not like this type of challenge. I would like to learn how to say what I wish to say, yet with more tact. Are there any book or URL recommendations? Any advice?
posted by Knigel to Education (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"Some people might say [critical thing], but I couldn't possibly say that. I think you're great!"
posted by orthogonality at 7:08 PM on August 1, 2006

Best answer: Um...please don't ever say that to someone, orthogonality.

Check out Difficult Conversations. I think it's exactly what you're looking for. It's well-researched, well-written, and easy to read.
posted by equipoise at 7:29 PM on August 1, 2006

I don't mean this as snark, but maybe keep your mouth shut every once in a while. Just because you see a criticism doesn't mean you have to voice it.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:30 PM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you must criticize (and Terminal Verbosity has a point), be constructive. Don't just point out negatives, but provide positive options and suggestions. If you have to mention a negative, try and temper it with a positive comment as well.

"Hey, those shoes are sweet! You know what though? I bet they'd go better with dark-blue jeans than those stone-washed ones. I saw a pair that would look great on you at ..."
posted by Rock Steady at 7:47 PM on August 1, 2006

Playwright Richard Greenburg put it best, in an interview with the NY Times Magazine (he was referring to critics, but I find this quote applies to life in general):

'But you know what, I appreciate people who are civil, whether they mean it or not. I think: Be civil. Do not cherish your opinion over my feelings. There's a vanity to candor that isn't really worth it. Be kind.'
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:53 PM on August 1, 2006 [9 favorites]

You could just refer to it as a personal difference. A lot of times criticisms point to differences between people. Your way is not necessarily better. So you could point to the differences between you and someone else with words that are compliments. Instead of saying, "you talk too loudly" you could say, "I guess I just tend to speak more quietly than you do" or "your voice projects so much better than mine." Instead of saying, "Why do you let people talk on and on? You should manage your time better," you could say, "You are so patient. I could never listen to someone talk for that long."

Also, you could refer to it as a behavior, not a character trait, hence "I speak more quietly" instead of "I am a quieter person." (Quieter may not be a word.)

Personally, as I get older, I find less and less value in criticism. The world is so corrosive already. Most people need to believe in themselves more, not less. And people are on their own trajectories of growth. Helping them move along their trajectory more quickly by answering their questions or helping them is probably more useful than trying to reroute their trajectory. (But then again, I'm criticizing your question, aren't I? Sorry. :) )
posted by beatrice at 8:05 PM on August 1, 2006

I have had this problem at times. My advice is, when talking to others about anything that might reflect on them, even if you feel compelled to say something because it is smart, insightful, relevant, etc., do not offer advice or suggestions unless you are directly asked. If it is unclear to you whether the person wants advice, at least ask if they want your thoughts on the matter. Even if they say yes out of obligation, their tone will give you a sense of their real feelings.

Also, realize that most of the time, it is not actually important to say what you wish to say, especially if someone else might take it as critical. Pick your battles.
posted by underwater at 8:57 PM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think that you should only voice criticizm when it's constructive, gentle, relevant to a problem they're bothered about, and comes with some kind of supportive advice. In short, when it would help someone else. People don't like to constantly be "challenged."

I have friends who love nothing more than a rousing debate, and it's gotten them into trouble because other people see it as picking fights. If you really can't live without criticizing things, try finding a non-personal topic that both you and your conversational partner feel the same about. For example, my teacher friends and I love tearing apart the educational system and rebuilding it in our minds. Criticizing a system is MUCH better recieved than criticizing someone's boyfriend or career path.
posted by christinetheslp at 9:32 PM on August 1, 2006

Yes, try using your powers of analysis work out what is good about yourself and about others. Moving towards the good things can be just as effective a growth method as being scared away from the bad.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:37 AM on August 2, 2006

"One problem is some people do not like this type of challenge."

Well, no, they don't. Why do you feel that you are entitled to "challenge" people in this way?

Like you, I am a critical person; in fact, most anyone who knows me will confirm that I'm the most critical person he/she knows. But I've come to realize that, in most cases, my criticisms embody nothing more than my opinion. And I've no right to ram my opinion down anyone's throat. And people are entitled to be offended if I try to. And it doesn't matter how much I try to sugarcoat it, because that doesn't fool anyone.

I'm not saying never criticize. There are situations in which we're morally obligated to criticize others' views, or at least their behavior. But since in those cases we generally expect indignation from the ones criticized, I'm assuming you aren't asking about those cases.
posted by bricoleur at 3:51 AM on August 2, 2006

Response by poster: Bricoleur, I am asking about those situations. I believe I was not clear enough in my original post; I am not starting from scratch, I do have a lot of communication skill. I do have tact and patience; I even know when to keep my mouth shut -- usually. I am one of those people who can handle very intense situations and have everyone feel that they have won. Sometimes I do feel that I am entitled to challenge someone, specifically when their behaviours are affecting myself or other people. Recently I challenged a teacher due to many people feeling that she was a bully and a boss because she was constantly venting about other employees at work behind their back. I also challenge people who sit down and light up a cigarette right beside me and allow the smoke to be blown into my face.

I am looking for ways to communicate better than I already do.
posted by Knigel at 4:51 AM on August 2, 2006

There is probably an iceberg of story in back of this question...

Regardless, Rule #1 from 'How to Win Friends and Influence People':

Never criticize, condemn or complain.

It might help when tempted to criticize, to recite a brief mental mantra... such as:

I am just like the guy I am about to 'advise'.
I make mistakes every day.
No one cares what I think.
I am not living his life... he is.
If I haven't been asked for criticism, it probably won't be appreciated.

Doesn't always work for me, but sometimes... very rarely, it keeps my foot out of my mouth.

Good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 5:02 AM on August 2, 2006

'But you know what, I appreciate people who are civil, whether they mean it or not. I think: Be civil. Do not cherish your opinion over my feelings. There's a vanity to candor that isn't really worth it. Be kind.'

That's a great quote.

Thanks for the explanation, Knigel. In those circumstances, where you feel you have to confront someone, try putting yourself in their place and imagining different ways someone might confront you, and pick the one that seems least offensive.
posted by languagehat at 5:59 AM on August 2, 2006

Knigel, my apologies if I misread your post. (I did just re-read it, though, and must say I came away with the same impression as initially.)

Anyway, my two cents worth on your clarified question is, be blunt. If you are quite sure that your challenge is called for, there is no need to be tactful or spare feelings. If you're calling someone on something, be respectful and matter of fact but make it perfectly clear to them and to everyone in listening distance that that is what you are doing, so that there is no possibility of any misunderstanding. Because in those cases, it is an adversarial situation and trying to disguise that fact just comes off as passive-aggressive.
posted by bricoleur at 7:27 AM on August 2, 2006

Have you read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People"? It's a little dated, but the basics are very good.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:01 AM on August 2, 2006

I've struggled with this, too. One of the things I've learned is that it's not just about criticism being constructive. If you're just constructively critical all the time, that's extremely aggravating, too. The people I find hardest to deal with are those that never compliment anything I do, but are always finding things wrong with it. So when I'm being critical, I try to find things I like about it, too. Sometimes this is hard and comes off as insincere, but pretty frequently there's something really good about something someone has done. There's no need to dwell on it, but it's really important that it get said. This also helps avoid the dissonant situation when you're really critical with someone all the time but from time to time say things like "I really respect your work" or whatever. You may mean it, but when every detail-oriented conversation is about something you don't like, it doesn't really help.

Another strategy I use (and this has been sort of covered by others in the thread) is to make sure I talk about my experiences, and make it clear that other people's may be different. So, I wouldn't say "You should have written that application in Python," but I might say "I've had some success writing applications like that in Python. You might take a look at it to see if it would work for you." That way you're describing your own actions or preferences, not prescribing the behavior of others. It also makes it clear that you're not just making shit up, but that you're talking from personal experience or expertise on a topic.
posted by heresiarch at 9:15 AM on August 2, 2006

this is a page from one of my favorite websites; under the "interpersonal" header are some reflections by the author on ways he has become more tactful in ordinary conversation.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 11:22 AM on August 2, 2006

Sometimes I ask leading questions. Instead of saying "your calculation methodology is really inefficient," I'll say "why did you choose X methodology instead of (my-perceived-to-be-superior) Y methodology?" Frequently I'll discover that I didn't have all of the information, and therefore was mistaken in my perception. Sometimes, they'll not have thought of my methodology. Of course, I'm blessed to work with smart people who care about their actual work in addition to their egos and reputation.

On matters of pure opinion ("those are ugly socks!"), I try to only give input when I'm asked or am confident that the person actually values my opinion.

Finally, I work on taking criticism well. If I can't take it, there's no reason I should expect the privilege of dishing it out.
posted by elderling at 12:22 PM on August 2, 2006

Best answer: You're obviously a virtuoso thinker and talker. It's time to take the next step and become a virtuoso listener.

Concentrate on and practice keeping the conversation going. It's like the guy spinning a basketball on the tip of his finger. Finding just the right small motions to keep the ball spinning and balanced is far harder than it looks. It's your next important challenge in humal relations.
posted by KRS at 2:16 PM on August 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

You are frustrated with the behavior of your teacher and your boss, and rightly so! The reason you criticize is because you want this behavior to change...the real question is how do you change the behavior? This leads to the question, why are they acting this way? Your teacher is most likely feeling threatened/being defensive. Criticism to a bully-teacher will just make them act more defensively. What you need is a way to put them more at ease, make them feel more in control (which they should, as a teacher). Think about ways you can do this. However, if their bullying is physical, you have to let someone else know, like a dean or principle. A boss that criticizes others behind their backs to other employees is being manipulative. They might hope that if they mention the problem to you, you will mention it to the coworker, and that will fix the problem. Not the most effective management style! If you know a better way to manage what your boss is trying to accomplish with the back-talking, take the initiative to fix the problem. Or, make a pact with your coworkers: the next time your boss tries to start-up back-talking with any one of you, you will change the subject or excuse yourself politely. Soon, the boss won’t have anyone to whine to.

For the future: next time you feel the urge to criticize someone, ask yourself "Why do I want to criticize them? Was is it I want to change? Is criticism the best route to accomplishing this? What other options do I have?" I would say direct criticism in a lot of cases is an inefficient way to get the changes you want.
posted by Eringatang at 4:59 PM on August 2, 2006

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