Credit: David Moum on Unsplash

I was listening to a very interesting conversation between The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, about criticism they had received on their offerings. It got me thinking about the complexity around how criticism works.

I tend to be a conflict-avoider, but in general I think I’m about average when someone criticizes me. Often it stings inside, especially when it doesn’t feel like the person actually cares to support me as an individual.

So much of that depends on the context of the relationship. The “sandwich method” of delivering bad messages (good stuff – bad stuff – good stuff) was an attempt to remind the recipient of the larger positive context, but has been so badly misused that it’s pretty much entirely ineffective.

I’d like to point out that there are three parties to critical comments:

The criticizer is getting some self-reinforcement by feeling knowledgeable, powerful, or justified.  At its core, it’s really just a power relationship, exercised in a way which tends to raise up the self at the expense of another person.

Power isn’t inherently bad, though. We need people to make decisions and take control. It’s good that parents have power over their children, managers over their organizations, or safety officers over citizens.

It’s about how that power is exercised.

When someone exercises power over you without your best interests at heart, your immediate reaction is justification, combativeness, even retribution.

The recipient is the one who is put in this reactive situation. The initial response is rejection or deflection, but there are long term consequences as well. Why? Because humans are hardwired to pay as much attention to social threats as to physical threats. And receiving criticism is a social threat more than anything.

The audience is often forgotten, but plays a crucial role in the dynamic. Why do internet trolls make mean and embarrassing comments on social media? Primarily because of the audience that will see it, not because they’re trying to help the recipient in any way.

And the audience is what makes the social threat such a big factor.  It’s one thing to receive a one-to-one critical comment, and another to have that play out in front of others who you fear will judge and reject you.

We’re social animals, and this stuff matters. There’s a good reason why the saying is, “praise in public, criticize in private.”

As a leader yourself, you’re in a position of some power and influence. That means you need to use your powerful tools thoughtfully and skillfully. Yes, you need to give feedback, even critical at times.

So do it with love and forethought. Realize that an audiences always affected, and that magnifies the impact of a criticism. And the recipient is almost always taking things harder than you intended, especially if they care about their relationship with you.