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?

How Important Are Important People?

There are people who hold an outsize place in our culture. We tend to mythologize individuals, and celebrate their role, for good or evil.

Why do we do this?

First, we tend to want to put a face to an organization or to a group. For example, Tim Cook is Apple. Pope Francis is the Catholic Church. Lebron James is basketball. A group of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people is difficult to conceptualize. But one name, one face that stands for a movement is something we can comprehend.

We also like to remember important contributions. Albert Einstein’s scientific contributions are such that his name and appearance have become synonymous with science. Mother Theresa was a symbol of kindness and generosity to the whole world.

But whether it is a celebrity, an athlete, or a musician, famous people drive ratings, increase page views, and sell newspapers. So clearly some people are considered, by society, more important than others. More worthy of attention.

What is the alternative?

However, an entire political movement has sprung up to combat this. Talk of income inequality, of the 1% — the richest and most powerful of society — is featured on debate stages and town hall meetings around the country. If wealth and influence are considered “important”, there is an ongoing effort to return some power and voice to those who don’t have it.

While it is worthwhile to appreciate the contributions of individuals, does that also have the effect of minimizing the efforts of others with a lower profile? Steve Jobs was a visionary, sure, but it was the engineers and software programmers of Apple that actually produced the iPod, iPhone, Macintosh computer, and other products. It is the rare individual whose success doesn’t rely on the efforts of dozen, or hundreds of unheralded workers.

Do we, as a society, give too much credit to too few people? Or is fame and fortune fully deserved (and obscurity of others so implied)? How important are important people? Does it matter how important is defined?

Related questions: What is important? Where does authority come from? Who is the most important person in your life? Which historical person would you like to meet?

 

Can People Change?

This is an age old question, with many examples of conventional wisdom on both sides of the debate. Can people change? Or are facets of their personality fixed forever?

On one hand, cautionary tales abound. If your spouse cheats on you, they will do so again in the future. Addicts will use again. A convicted criminal will re-offend. A liar will continue to lie. Because people don’t change.

Conversely, stories of redemption are some of the most powerful stories of all. Everyone deserves a second chance, as the saying goes. Someone who learns from a mistake and takes steps to correct it is a hero.

How you view this issue may influence how you view the criminal justice system. Is it about punishment for doing wrong, or a chance to redeem yourself as a member of society? Does someone who serves out a prison sentence deserve the benefit of the doubt? In addition, does it matter what the offense was?

If you think it is possible for a person to change, how can any improvement be shown? In other words, at what point do we accept that a lesson has been learned, or that someone is truly remorseful?

Furthermore, what about change for the worse? Someone who has previously been kind and generous and thoughtful can do something selfish or mean. At what point does it become a change in personality? Is a nice person always nice, even if they do some things that are definitely not nice?

Usually, change is the one fixture in our lives. As we age, our body goes through physical changes: we get grey hairs, wrinkles around the eyes, gain some weight. But does our personality go through similar changes? Or do we have some traits that remain constant?

Related questions: What is time? What is necessary to change your mind? How have we changed? How have you changed?