When Should You Criticize Someone?

Being critical of someone else can be a tricky endeavor, even if it is well-intentioned. If you criticize, it might be interpreted as a personal attack. If they respond with a defensive posture, it might make effective communication more difficult.

When To Criticize

Sometimes, it is important to challenge someone else’s ideas or comments. If a friend or family member expresses an idea that you strongly disagree with, particularly if that idea is hurtful or dangerous, it should not remain unanswered.

By engaging with someone, you might be exposing him or her to a point of view they may not have encountered before. That can be a very valuable thing, particularly in this era of online bubbles of group-think.

But sometimes being critical does not serve any defined purpose. The person being criticized is unlikely to change, and might not even listen to the criticism. If all that can be achieved is hurt or angry feelings, then keeping silent may be a better course of action.

How To Criticize

So knowing when to criticize and when not to is important, but then so is knowing how to do it. How can you get someone to listen, to accept your opinion in a constructive way? How can you avoid a personal attack, or at least avoid such an appearance?

It can be a fine line between denouncing someone’s ideas and insulting who they are. A person’s strongly-held belief can be a cornerstone of their identity. In that case, condemning the idea may seem akin to condemning the person. That is no way to get someone to keep an open mind, and get them to consider other points of view.

So really, there are two closely-related questions: When should you criticize someone? And how should you criticize someone in order to get them to listen?

Related questions: How can we encourage debate? What words have the most power? How important is respect? What makes a good friend? How can we encourage meaningful conversation?

4 thoughts on “When Should You Criticize Someone?”

  1. I’m of the opinion that we don’t criticize each other often enough. Ideas need to be challenged, in order to make sure that they are thoughtful and helpful. They get that way through criticism. So personally, I try to criticize ideas or expressed opinions often. And I welcome criticism of my own ideas, and I try as best I can to not take the criticisms personally.

    However, I also think that the way we do criticism needs to be completely overhauled. When I criticize, which again, I do often, I try to start out with something positive. Too often (as in, almost all the time) I see people insulting each other and their opinions, particularly online.

    In my mind, this is a bad way to approach this. I certainly understand the desire to have a strong stance. You don’t want to seem to be equivocating or deferential.

    However, when I criticize, I try to start by pointing out something that we have in common. We both want what is best for our country. We both want people to lead healthier lives. We both want a stronger economy. And so on.

    This has two positive effects. One is that it reminds the person that you are criticizing that you are not on opposite sides. Rather, you are on the same side, but you have different approaches to try and achieve the same shared goals. That makes them less likely to see you as an enemy, or to take up an unyielding defensive position.

    The second positive effect is that it makes YOU realize the same thing. The person you are arguing with, or critical of, is a human being, who wants what you want. They shouldn’t be dismissed just because of an opinion that they have.

    When criticizing someone, it is important, I think, to explain why they are wrong. This is a point that is far too often ignored. Sure, Uncle Joe’s statement was racist. But what made it racist? And why does that matter? And the criticism is even more effective if you can pair it with a personal anecdote or appeal to a shared history. Uncle Joe might realize his comment is bigoted if someone were to say something similar to your bullied cousin.

    Ultimately, we’re all in this together, even if you are in different political parties, different countries, or follow different sports teams. We all want what is best for our friends and family, for our country, and for the world as a whole. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of it.

  2. I believe in fostering healthy conversations. I believe people should:
    – learn to be gentle listeners;
    – ask probing questions to get to the heart of a person’s belief in a particular viewpoint; and
    – seek to understand before trying to be understood.

    That noted, I also believe that:
    – critique is — or at least can be — a healthy thing;
    – if you throw an opinion / viewpoint out into the world, you should expect to explain or defend it.

    I don’t believe any of these points / skills are taught or fostered much in today’s society.

    So how is healthy criticism to be offered?

    Well, first let me repeat the point made in the question: hurtful and dangerous ideas (I would specifically note bigoted viewpoints) always warrant a strong challenge. A proper response should begin with something like, “Do you understand how hurtful and/or degrading that viewpoint is?” While one can hope that changing someone’s mind is possible, I would argue that that’s not the intent of such a critique. You are challenging the initial viewpoint to note that the originally expressed opinion is not acceptable — to the person who expressed the viewpoint as well as others who may be present.

    For non-hurtful opinions, a simple statement of “That’s not how I see things. I believe …. What brings you to the viewpoint that …?”

    The intent is not to get the person in a defensive posture. It’s to draw someone out — using the points written at the beginning of my response. Even if you don’t change someone’s mind, your conversation can serve as an example that healthy dialogue about opinions are possible.

  3. Your ideas are welcome.
    Another aspect is much more personal and that would be in close relationships.
    How fragile is the topic and the person who is being corrected (criticized).
    If the leader of the conversation so to speak isn’t gently directing their words, they are likely to crush the spirit of the one who they are talking to.

  4. I used to belong to a Toastmaster’s group, where we would give constructive criticism to the speaker of the day. We were encouraged to give 5 positive comments for every negative one. I like that practice and think it makes a lot of sense.

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