Earlier this week, Julia Galef posted a brief piece to facebook on unsolicited criticism. I started to reply, and then semi-accidentally wrote something blog-post length and somewhat tangential to the original discussion. Note that I didn’t start out with a specific point to make, so my post doesn’t exactly have a coherent structure or direction to it.
“Criticism” seems like a complex term, which might be worth deconstructing.
Wikipedia says “Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.” This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and also seems to imply that criticism is inherently ~essentialist. If A is criticizing B’s behaviour, that basically implies there’s something wrong with B (and that A has the right to judge B).
This is naturally going to put people on the defensive.
Broadly speaking, criticism is part of a larger set of things we might call “feedback”. In a really abstract sense, what “feedback” is is information flow between parts of a system. Even if we assume that all criticism is negative (which seems roughly but not strictly true of the usage of the english word “criticism”, outside of artistic contexts) it’s still not the case that all negative feedback is criticism: for instance, if your house gets too warm in the winter, a negative feedback loop from the thermostat to the furnace will cause the furnace to stop.
To take a human example, sometimes I’ve been talking excitedly and then someone has told me (with words or gestures) to be more quiet. This is clearly negative feedback: it responds to increased voice volume on my part with something intended to decrease voice volume. Often this volume feedback feels like a helpful and connective signal, but at other times it feels like criticism—like they think I’m incompetent for not already speaking more quietly. Especially if they’ve told me in the past.
What makes the difference?
I think it has a lot to do with why the person is giving the feedback… or more precisely, why the listener thinks the person is giving the feedback.
Let’s take a longer example story…
One Sunday afternoon, I noticed that I was feeling a slight disconnect in my relationship with my friend and colleague Jean (the Chief Designer, Nudger & Nurturer in my intentional learning community). I was planning to head out after I finished making and eating breakfast, but made a point of going over to connect with her. Fairly quickly into the conversation, we found ourselves talking about an interaction we’d had the night before.
Jean theorized that that interaction was related to the present disconnect. She went on to describe her experience of me having been much less aware than I had been recently, and then awkwardly defending a decision I had made, in a way that put barriers between us.
As she was talking, I found that parts of me were very tempted to interpret what she was saying as criticism: “Malcolm, you fucked up, you did it wrong, you should feel bad. What do you have to say for yourself?” This interpretation would naturally lead towards defensiveness and pushing Jean away further. If someone thinks I’m a fuckup, that’s not a very safe state of affairs, particularly if I want to have a relationship with that person. (There’s another common pattern people exhibit here, which is sort of the opposite: to maintain consistency via being very self-critical instead. I don’t personally experience that one much.)
And yet… based on past experience, I knew that Jean wasn’t actually judging me in this way. She was giving this feedback not to push me away, but to point out the things that were already in the way of us being closer and more connected. And so each time the urge to defend myself came up, I resisted it. At least a dozen times, I chose not to respond with a normative explanation of the situation, but with openness and interest. It was a mental workout! I was doing curiosity-not-defensiveness reps. I think it may be a new “record”, in some sense (this would be my old record).
Part of what made it easy to resist defending myself was knowing that Jean’s intent wasn’t to criticize me in the classical sense, but to help me understand her experience of the incident… in part so that I could change my thinking and my behaviour to create better interactions in the future, but also because her sharing her experience with me is a way for us to be close. So I knew that it wouldn’t help to defend myself, and I also knew that I wanted the information she had. In order to hear it, I had to be curious, rather than defensive.
And that’s that story. But in some situations, the person is judging you. Or maybe they’ve got both dynamics going on: your romantic partner simultaneously wants to simply give you feedback that will improve the relationship, and also kind of wants to make you feel bad for having done something that hurt them or frustrated them. Or wants to feel superior by pointing out a thing.
There remains an interesting question of “does it make sense to still be defensive in such a situation?” I think the answer will usually be “no.” But why do we do it? I think that it comes down to a matter of safety.
In relationships that feel “at stake”, in some sense, whether the threat is material—a partner breaking up with you, or your parent disowning you, or your boss firing you—or purely rejection of your basic humanness… criticism kind of contains this veiled threat. “You’re not good enough. Prove that you’re good enough.” And not in the sense of challenging you to do better, but more in the sense of challenging you to justify yourself. Except that actually attempting to do so will often just create an argument situation where the person doesn’t feel that their feedback was actually heard.
What is actually needed in these situations, it seems, is for the recipient of the feedback to understand and integrate it, and offer something from that place. Perhaps to ask some clarifying questions: “Ahh, so when I said X, you felt Y?” “Can you say more about how that was frustrating?”
There are forms that try to get at this: in theory, Non-Violent Communication is a way to communicate non-violently (ie without this implicit threat). In practice, it’s totally possible to adhere to the NVC language while still holding that sense of threat. This can end up being “worse” than violent language, because the threat is hard to point at since “I was using NVC!”
Another form is “Crocker’s Rules“. Based on the frame above, we can explain Crocker’s Rules as “I commit to not responding defensively to any feedback, and to attempt to extract the useful information from it”. This is a hard thing to commit to, especially since sometimes when people are being critical, they don’t even have that much useful information to offer.
But I have become wary of such dismissive lines of thought. I’ve sometimes been listening to someone’s feedback and found myself bored. “I already know this,” I think.
Except… if I already know it, why is the person telling me it? If I assume that they’re in fact trying to communicate something to me (not just saying words or being cruel) then there must be something that, from their perspective, it seems like I don’t actually know or understand. (Even if they are saying the feedback for reasons that have nothing to do with me getting better or us connecting, I can still get curious about what’s causing that.)
The original post Julia made was about unsolicited criticism in particular. This is totally relevant to the safety thing: when criticism is requested, it’s generally pretty clear that the person who is requesting the feedback feels a sense of trust that negative feedback doesn’t threaten the relationship—otherwise they wouldn’t ask for it. But in general, relationships are actually quite often on the line, and so when feedback comes without the preexisting context of safety, it’s problematic.
So this is a slightly more nuanced dimension than solicited/unsolicited: in some cases, a person might solicit feedback, but the trust actually isn’t there for them to hear it safely; in other cases, there can be a tacit understanding that various kinds of feedback are wanted, even if they haven’t been explicitly requested. (My blog post Common-knowledge self-commitments is a bit about this.)
And, like all kinds of consent, this is a thing to be navigated moment-by-moment. It can take a lot of skill to do so though—to pay attention to the space from which the person is listening to your feedback, and to stop piling it on if it’s creating defensiveness rather than connection and curiosity. And to take a step back. It can require a lot of meta-safety. This practice is at the core of reveal culture.
Feedback is valuable, but we can’t always assume that it’ll make sense to share it. If the feedback provokes a defensive response, it might end up backfiring anyway, so first focus on building the trust in the relationship.
Then, share the feedback not as criticism (“you have a problem”) but as revealing your own experience (“this is what it was like for me when you did that”). This will also really help the person not respond defensively. No guarantees though.
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