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“Fair” and “Unfair” Criticism – just what is it that makes the difference?

“Fair” criticism means that what is being said is true. Intent is not the same as “Fair.” But intent matters…..

Saying, “Don’t hire Dennis to change the oil in your car, it’s not his area of specialty.”

Fair comment and probably not ill intended, even though it may smart a little, but it’s fair. Certainly I couldn’t debate the issue!

“Intentionally Unfair” criticism is what happens when someone says something about you true or not and it is said with the intent to demean, diminish, or cause pain instead of repair. It’s said to hurt instead of assist.

As a mentor and coach, people pay me to “criticise” their work, their business and life strategies” …but not THEM as people.

Doing something foolish is one thing. Being a foolish person is another. Doing something bad is human. Being a bad person is a poor life choice.

“Constructive criticism” is a pretty complex term filled with all kinds of problems but there IS such a thing. Whether there is intention for harm and desired to be heard, is largely what determines whether it is warranted or not. The vast majority of constructive criticism cuts with a knife and is directed with vicious intent.

So, criticism is a pretty complex and sensitive area –it’s something like smacking someone in the head, except with words. The fact is that just about all criticism hurts. All Criticism Stings

I’m often offered “Unsolicited feedback” – most often when I present to a group & the message has been “Uncomfortable” for the target audience. So, my presentation is viewed as “Criticism”.

These comments are often totally accurate. 100%. And I know that there was not one single ounce of malice in these statements.

But it still stung!

For behavioural change to happen, it needs to sting, or what happened would simply occur again in the future.

For the “Sting” to have effect, the giver of the criticism needs to make sure I know that their purpose was not to cause the sting factor. I knew that of course, as sure as I know you are reading this. But it still stung. Not a lot. Just a little.

So let’s agree that pretty much all criticism, paid/unpaid, solicited/unsolicited, constructive/ unconstructive/malicious….

It all hurts & it should – start worrying when it doesn’t!


You know what?? The people around you and me all feel the same inside.

Now, I’m not saying you have a challenge with criticism, but let’s just imagine that you could be 10% better in this area…both in shooting out criticism and smarting less when you are on the painful end.

Criticism is a Default Behaviour (that you can switch on or off!)

Often, when we are confronted with an undesirable situation or event, we tend to criticise or find fault. “What’s going on around here? What happened here? Who did this?” All these questions may not necessarily be suggestive of a criticism, but somehow, they are posed in a negative manner.

Criticising is a reaction that is second nature to most of us….it is a “default behaviour.” It is part of your biological make up …often without the frontal lobes having a vote on whether the words should depart from the mouth!

People find faults more often than they find solutions. This is because it’s almost always easier to spot the problem than it is to find the solution.

It doesn’t take much intelligence to criticise but to criticise, complain, or condemn others is futile – it only creates more problems than the original ones.

Boss, Wife, Lover, Friend, Child, Employee – for heaven’s sake, start catching yourself now when you criticise. The result is, at times, dangerous – because criticising hurts a person’s pride and self-importance, and this leads to resentment.

When people resent you, they will consciously or unconsciously seek and get revenge. One thing is certain. They WILL take the revenge action at some point.

Not maybe… They will.

Your marriage, your relationship, your division, your business. It’s all the same. Criticism costs you money and LOTS of emotional bank account points. Criticism causes resentment and payback.

What is the typical reaction of a person being criticised?


Suppose a homeowner hires a gardener who is responsible for the upkeep of her property. Let us suppose that after a certain period, the homeowner finds the work performance of the gardener unsatisfactory. The homeowner could do lots of things to change this, but let’s say the options were to select either of the following:

Tell the gardener straight forwardly that she is not satisfied with the gardener’s performance and criticise; or….

Ask the gardener to accompany her in visiting a friend. The homeowner’s purpose is to show her gardener, her friend’s home that she finds satisfactorily maintained. During the visit, her friend’s gardener can give tips to her gardener on effective procedures.


If you’re the homeowner and you choose the first approach (by criticising), it is likely that your relationship with your gardener will get strained. The effect of criticising has a lot to do with the attitude of the person being criticised.

If they take it light-heartedly, this may not lead to resentment. But if they take it defiantly, the effects can at times be disastrous or disadvantageous.

EVENTUALLY criticism makes a person defensive. Your defensive gardener’s reaction is to find justification for their actions. Defensive acts will lead to people ripping you off, spreading gossip about you…all kinds of lovely things… (flight/fight)

But it doesn’t have to be this way!.

An act of diplomacy, free of criticism, could be the right approach to better understanding and cooperation between two people. Going back to the case between the homeowner and gardener, the second approach shows the homeowner’s subtle way of conveying her message to the gardener – how she wants the job done to her satisfaction, without resulting in strained relationships.

Give people a second chance. When you ask a person to do a certain task that results in an outcome that falls short of expectations, quite often you don’t give the person a second chance to prove their worth. When you do it creates instant bonding and rapport.

Some factors may have to be taken into consideration depending on the situation at hand. At any rate, improvement, free from criticism, with room for a second chance to prove one’s worth, is a welcome change.

You can criticise and still be kind – just bear in mind that a person’s past matters. Did they have a hyper-critical parent or boss? It does matter in how they will experience you.

Have you ever encountered an experience when someone told you how fat you’ve become?

Maybe your boss has commented on how bad your work turned out to be. Maybe you’ve heard from other folks how people view you as cold and unapproachable.

These things sting – sometimes bad.

Believe it or not, some people can be so tactless that they are not even aware when they’ve hurt anyone’s feelings! The receiving parties, especially the sensitive ones, would be “offended” by their remarks.

This then results in conflicts and arguments.

You know you’re doing them a favour by saving them from shame or disappointment, but would they realise your good intentions instead of feeling hurt by your brutally frank comments or advice?

More likely, they’ll simply think you’re rude or impolite.


So what can you do if you really need to assert an honest criticism… but you’re afraid of hurting others’ feelings?

Here’s a helpful strategy….

Instead of making statements around their performance (or whatever behaviour you want addressed)

Ask questions – not as a challenge (avoid using “Why”) but as a mechanism to get them thinking about things from the perspective of someone else (preferably someone with whom they have a decent working relationship).

For example, your best friend John is going on his very first date. He’s all excited….

Now John doesn’t have any fashion sense. He’s wearing a bland shirt and old jeans.

You know how he hates to admit that he’s wrong. (He’s a guy and when we were born we all took the oath to never admit error.)

So what will you do to save John from an embarrassing first date?

“Hey STOOPID, you want her to laugh when she sees you?”

Would you say to him that the outfit he’s wearing is repulsive? You get the idea….

HELPING is never easy…it generally comes across as hurting…bad.

Instead ask something like..

“Hey man, if you were going out with a girl to somewhere special & she showed up in an old pair of jeans & a tired blouse, how would you feel.”

Depending on response (let’s hope John has some capacity for empathy!) you could say something like:

“So, how do you think she’d feel if the situation was reversed?”

Now John has been exposed to the possibility that what he’s wearing might not be ideal & can make a decision as to whether to change or not. The important point here is that HE decided on the change as opposed to you attempting to force it.

Just be sure to congratulate John on “His” good sense to change – people love compliments. People want to hear how great they are from as many other people as humanly possible!

Criticism predictably leads to one thing….


Why Argue? You Can’t Win Anyway

Have you noticed the predictable outcome of an argument between two people or groups with contradicting views?

Was there really a winner? Exactly.

To most people, being contradicted and told they are wrong in front of other people is a king size problem. For obvious reasons, (remember biology…flight/fight) no one can tolerate being contradicted, especially in front of others. It is an embarrassment.

KEY POINT: Welcome an opinion even though it is the opposite of your own.

When two people go into a partnership, let’s say in business, it is normal that disagreements arise. Actually, it is healthy and necessary for business. Disagreements don’t mean that the partnership will go sour. It’s the exchange of ideas that gives businesses more competitive edges and improvements. Use disagreements to your advantage.

This is especially true for married couples. Husbands and wives may disagree but they ultimately find a common ground to make their relationship stronger. It’s like exploring each other, getting to know your partner better.

Dr. John Gottman states that according to his divorce research, about 70% of all disagreements  & arguments that recur are unresolvable. (I think I got that right.)

That’s a pretty amazing statistic and in retrospect, it seems about right. Let’s face it, most of us  argue about the “same thing” over and over too – don’t you?

Everyone does. Agree to Disagree!

So, instead of criticising each other’s viewpoints (what we all used to do), we now agree to disagree on these topics. We make sure the other person knows how we feel and what we think and vice versa.

The key of course is EMOTION. If you are the temperamental type, you have to learn to control it. Make every effort to gradually reduce the intensity until you see substantial improvement.

Temper that is out of control is fuelled by anger like a forest fire. How do you keep your tongue from criticising and expressing your anger to boot?

Well that’s the subject of a book in itself but think about this…

One of the most important character traits you can develop to avoid arguments is to be a good listener. Give your ear a chance to listen first before you let words come out of your mouth. My grandfather used to sit and think for a minute before answering some questions that came his way….now I know why!

And when you do have a word or two to say, try your best to align them in a non-argumentative direction. Be tactful. Dwell on areas where you think you and the other party will agree.

If you make a mistake, acknowledge and apologise accordingly.


Apologising for mistakes does not make you a lesser person in terms of importance. On the contrary, people feel humbled when apologised to. Apologies bring out the gentle person in you.

Give the other party the benefit of the doubt in their opinion especially when you doubt your own opinion as well. Tell them you will think over their ideas.

This is better than being told later, “I told you so but you wouldn’t listen.” This will also give the two of you a chance to evaluate the problem or issue.

Having Self Compassion Helps Overcome Rejection When someone takes the time and the effort to engage in a debate or argument with you, it only shows that they are also interested in the same things as you. That alone is sufficient reason for you to thank them.


Dennis Hall

Posted In: Business Relationships

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