To Be Critical

To be critical is often seen as a negative attribute in our society.

Unless, you are being a critical thinker or giving a critical analysis in academia.  Then the being critical may be praised.

When we use critical to describe something other than a person however, when something is critical we know that it is of utmost importance – whether it be a critical idea that one hopes to get across or a sign of impending disaster.  Critical then marks a kind of apex – a point from which much could change going forward.

Being critical tends to put many on the defense or results in being essentially excommunicated.  When women are critical in the workplace, they are often seen as bossy.  When patients are critical of their doctors or the hospitals they are labeled as difficult.  But to be critical should not in and of itself be deemed to be negative.  The very act of being critical means that someone cares – of course they may care for different reasons – but it has been my experience that by in large many care because they want things to be better, they want others to do better.

Yet the motives behind criticism are often misunderstood.  Many feel that when another is being critical, they are threatening or demoralizing. Perhaps this is the result of the misuse of the concept of being critical – when one says they are being critical but truly mean to be attack another. That is not being critical, that is to criticize – a related concept but one much more wrapped in judgment and disapproval.  Too many times being critical is confused with criticism that is offered with ulterior motives (e.g. to threaten or demoralize).

I am not afraid to be critical.

It is part of who I am and throughout my life that attribute has tended to lead to negative consequences.  Being critical of PCORI meant that they have excluded me from the community.  Being critical of hospitals that made severe mistakes meant that they stopped talking to me (perhaps fearing a lawsuit?).  Being critical of physicians meant that I was fired, terminating my relationship with providers because they said it made our relationship “no longer therapeutic.” Being critical at work of colleagues or bosses meant I lost jobs.  Being critical has resulted in some intense backlashes.

You’d think given these results, I’d stop being critical.  Yet it is part of who I am and I think I am misunderstood because of it.  I think this is also true for many, particularly patients.

I think when I am critical I am seen as a bitch.  I’m seen as having self-serving motives of wanting to put someone down or point out flaws in a cruel, demeaning, and useless way.  I think my being critical is often seen as a problem resulting from my mental illnesses – a common trope that those with borderline personality disorder are difficult and always pushing boundaries.

I think when other patients are critical they too are labeled as difficult to the extent that some are judged as having mental health issues – anger, anxiety, etc.  That somehow in being critical there is something wrong with me, with us.  In other words, it couldn’t possibly be that the person being critical is saying something of importance, but that there is something defective with that person.

To be fair, I do not receive criticism that well.  When someone is critical of me, I accept it as criticism to my character (which sometimes it is) and I too become defensive.  And yet, once the defensiveness dies down, I do want others to be critical of me.  I want the feedback.  I want to use that feedback to improve if the criticism is of me.  If the criticism is of an idea, I want to use that feedback to strengthen my argument or see the holes in my thinking.  But still, it is very hard to hear, to absorb.

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An article in the Harvard Business Review bears this out.  In several studies they showed that “people tend to move away from those who provide feedback that is more negative than their view of themselves. They do not listen to their advice and prefer to stop interacting with them altogether.”  But the consequence of moving away and not listening means that performance suffers.  Though we do not like others to be critical of our performance (which we take to be critical of us personally) it turns out that:

Being aware of your weaknesses and shortcomings — whether you like it or not — is critical to your improvement.

When received openly, I’ve seen the incredible impact this can have.  I’ve seen it change hearts and seen it improve practices.  I’ve seen it actually bring people closer together (once the initial jolt wears off).  I’ve seen it make things better, add a new voice, start an important discussion.

To that extent – you may even consider seeking out criticism.

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I’d add to this notion that to be openly critical doesn’t just improve performance but that it can be a public service.  When someone is openly critical – on a blog or on social media – it provides accountability, a public record.  I’ve been accused as seeming too negative on Twitter for my constant tweets to companies calling them out on their behavior or being critical of their performance.  But I stand by what may seem to be a negative stream when others want to see more positivity.  Twitter, and social media in general, has democratized our voices and allowed us to provide critical feedback in a way that was ignored before because there was no accountability.  I can provide example after example where after attempts to email and call and fill out feedback forms, I was completely ignored but when I tweeted, immediate action was taken.  (An imperfect case in point.)  In so doing, I (and others) have not just made change for ourselves, but in the systems that created the issue at hand in a way that can improve things for others.  This is generally my intent – to provoke change. Sure there can be frustration behind my outcries and emotion embedded within my words, but ultimately I say them because I care enough to want change for others, not just myself.

I’d also return to the idea of critical thinking.  We want our children to be critical thinkers, to question the world around them and to carefully reflect on what they see and learn. We teach critical thinking and we accept it in certain arenas. We want researchers to apply a critical eye to their projects and findings.  We want journalists to provide critical analyses of the issues of the day.   We want to be critical of our leaders in government and hold them accountable.  Yet too often a person who is being critical and the ideas they express are rejected.  It is a dichotomy that should not hold – to value critical thought on the one hand and not the people who are expressing those thoughts.

We may not when someone is being critical, but we need to listen.  As I said, when something is critical, when it is of great importance, it rests at an apex – an apex where change can happen.  Perhaps it is the critical moment where someone may live or die, or the moment where a the floodwaters have risen to a critical point, the moment when critical actions must be taken or too much will be lost.

I know that it is hard to embrace those who are critical, who may call into question our actions or beliefs.  Yet, it is critical that we hear these difficult messages. If we listen to the critical thinkers, those who are being critical, we have a chance change the course of our futures before or when something becomes critical.

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(Note – think carefully about whether your comments are actually a form of criticism, attack, and judgment which is often unfairly heaped on individuals in the public sphere.  This type of action is not being critical, this is to act to essentially shame another, the foundation of which is not in the spirit of positive change.  I encourage you to read Jon Ronson’sSo You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” if that is your actual intent.)

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Update:

This post was updated on 11/17/2016 to include pictures Good Fucking Design Advice (@GoodDsgnAdvice) posted on twitter to emphasize points made about the importance of criticism.

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6 Responses to To Be Critical

  1. ebukstel says:

    I think the most important consideration re” “critical” is “intent” Is the “critical” comment meant to inform, or help someone, or is it intended to harm. Repetition of “critical thought” or comments can be viewed as harmful by some. Good work, Erin.

    • This is a great point! I think that intent is key. I think this comes with the fine line between criticism and being critical or critiquing someone or something.

      I think most assume a bad intent when that may not be the case. The result of which is the feedback is not listened to, we become defensive and offended. Perhaps we need to question our assumptions, that not all feedback is meant with ill intent.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Ally says:

    Reminds me of Professor Lindred Greer’s point about having a devil’s advocate in the office:

    https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/do-you-have-contrarian-your-team

    • Great article. What an interesting thing that we consider dissent as the devil, the ultimate evil? As with the previous comment, perhaps we need to stop thinking that those who vocalize a different opinion as something that is bad but rather something to be embraced.

  3. […] and a sign of just how tough I really am.  You would understand that my nature to question, to be critical, to insist we do better is not “negativity.”  You would know that to wear a smile is […]

  4. […] degrade someone – is it that they feel hurt by what I’ve said?  Are they pushing back with critical thought in the same way I push back?  Have they misinterpreted my words and intent?  Might they simply be […]

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