Ask Permission Before Criticizing

Critical review of other people's work is a necessary part of any collaborative activity. No matter how competently somebody has performed their work, feedback from others is almost always helpful.

Unfortunately, people can be hurt by such feedback. No matter how constructive the critique is or how well-intentioned the critic is, it can sting to be told that one's work is flawed. The recipient may interpret the critique only as a sign of disapproval, and not as a helpful suggestion. Things are even worse when it is necessary for the critic to CriticizeBluntly to get the point across. The hurt feelings can harm interpersonal relationships and lead to a defensive closing of communication.

Due to the potential for negative side-effects, many people are reluctant to provide any feedback other than glowing praise. Others are not reluctant to criticize, but unintentionally cause harm when the recipient is not in the right frame of mind to accept it.

Therefore,

Before making critical statements, ask permission. A question like "Would you like my opinion?" or "Can I show you another way to do this?" may seem to be unnecessary (after all, the recipient is not going to answer "No"), but it serves these purposes: When you have made your intentions clear, it is easier to make critical statements without concern that the recipient will take offense. After you have done this, a level of mutual trust and understanding will develop that makes further requests for permission unnecessary.

A fully verbalized request for permission is not required. Subtle signals are often even more effective. Raising an eyebrow, squinting your eyes, clearing your throat, pointing at something, or going "Hmmmm...." may be enough to get the other person to ask "What? Do you see something?"

This works both for individuals and for teams. If a manager or coach asks permission first, the team is more likely to accept criticism and to actively participate in group discussions of problems.

But,

Asking permission is simply a polite way to begin an exchange that could become uncomfortable; it is not a complete solution to the problem. The critic still needs to determine the proper form of criticism, based upon the nature of personal and professional relationships and of the subject under review. Asking permission first does not give the critic carte blanche to abuse, insult, threaten, or belittle the recipient.

Note that asking for permission to criticize is not really asking for permission. Nobody is going to answer "No, I don't want you to tell me what you think." So don't ask for permission if you are not sure the recipient is really in the right frame of mind.

Like any other people-skill technique, this can backfire if somebody feels that you are manipulating them with it. Most people won't fault you for being too nice, but be careful that you don't come across as condescending or patronizing.


Note: On this page, we're using the original meaning of the word "criticism": analyzing, evaluating, and appreciating literary or artistic works. It is unfortunate that too many people don't know the difference between criticism and "finding faults and heaping harsh judgement on the work, on the author of the work, and on the parents of the author.". Should we pedantically insist on using words correctly, or would we communicate more effectively by using the phrase "suggestions for improvement" instead? -- DavidCary


Don't Ask, Don't Tell

My recommendation for criticism is, don't do it. Don't ask for permission and don't tell your criticism, either.

If someone has been given direction to do something and he does it within the scope of the guidelines given to him, what right does anyone have to come in afterwards and say the task was done incorrectly? If someone is in the position to help while the task is ongoing, it is fine to provide assistance. Once, it is done, however, the task is done, and there is no justification for another to come in and say "I could have done it better."

Help accomplish the task, but do not criticize the results.

How do you help accomplish the task without identifying problem areas and suggesting changes? That's the kind of criticism I'm talking about. I agree that Monday-morning quarterbacking is useless and unjustified, but saying "I think I know how we can do this better" is a necessary part of any collaborative activity. Criticism is not a bad thing, but it can certainly be done badly. Your statements above are critical, but your criticism is respectful, helpful, and non-confrontational. That's ConstructiveCriticism and it is valuable. Withholding all criticism is a great way to win friends, but it is not a good idea if you want to improve the quality of a product or process.

What do we mean by criticism here? If somebody's doing something in a less-than-perfect way, and then something happens that lets them do it in a better way, why are we calling that something criticism? We could just as easily call it education, or a sharing of ideas.

By "criticism" we are referring to the ideas in CriticalSpirit, CriticalStyle, etc. Simply put, criticism is the practice of analyzing and evaluating something. Yes, criticism is at its best an educational and sharing of ideas. However, criticism starts by analyzing and evaluating an existing work, rather than by introducing new principles or ideas, and the danger is that the creator of that work will be hurt if the evaluation is not a positive one. Asking permission first mitigates that danger.

Asking permission sometimes helps, but it's important to realize that what's most important is what you say after you ask for permission. Most people will grant permission for others to do or say anything to them - if and only if it's done in a way that is respectful to them, and where they're coming from. And if you say it disrespectfully, then it won't matter whether or not you explicitly asked permission beforehand.

I think the same thing about when people say "I hope you don't take offense at this, but ..." If you think the listener might take offense, and offending them isn't your goal, then take the time to say it in a way so they won't take offense. If you don't know how to do that, then learn. Apologizing first fixes nothing.

Unless I'm in an explicitly teaching mode, I try never to say "It would work better if you did it this way." I try instead, to package what I'm saying as simply the unthreatening presentation of another option. The person is then free to take that option or leave it. I find myself using phrases like "In my experience" and "What works for me" a lot. 99% of the time that's sufficient; you couch new ideas in non-confrontational packages and most people are very happy to consider them and make use of them.

Before versus after. As noted above "criticism starts by analyzing and evaluating an existing work." If one wants to help someone, why not help by setting the direction before he starts, not by suggesting a different approach after he is done? If one cannot or will not suggest an approach before the task starts, he loses all rights to criticize the task once it is complete. Teach what should be done (future); don't evaluate what has been done (past).

What in the above paragraph makes you think it's about past vs future? Such tactics work as well before as after.

The phrase "criticism starts by analyzing and evaluating an existing work, rather than by introducing new principles or ideas" explicitly states that it is past tense not future.

Sorry, I wasn't being clear. What is it about the paragraph that starts with "Unless I'm in an explicitly teaching mode" that makes you bring up the past vs future opposition?

How is criticism (or opposition) done for the future? If the paragraph is about proposing alternative approaches to be taken, then we are in agreement. I just don't see how that falls under the definition of criticism. Should the referenced paragraph be read as in support of or in opposition to criticism?

I can't answer that question - I never had the patience to figure out what CriticalSpirit actually means. I was just pointing that regardless of whether or not you ask for permission first, you still have to be respectful and understanding when you actually say what you're going to say. (Regardless of what you say can be called "criticism" or "sharing" or "foobar" or whatever.)


Critical review of other people's work is a necessary part of any collaborative activity

Anyone care to justify the initial assumption on this page? What possible advantage arises from such criticism? Doesn't elimination of criticism make any collaborative activity more successful?

The word "criticism" here does not mean simply "expression of disapproval", which I agree is without value and often harmful. Synonyms for "criticism" include "critique", "analysis", "review", "feedback", and "suggestions for improvement". How can people collaborate effectively without giving one another feedback and advice?

If I look at a colleague's code and say "Hey, it looks like this variable isn't initialized before use.", that's criticism. Would elimination of such criticism make our collaboration more successful? I don't think so - such criticism should be encouraged, not eliminated.

It is important to create an environment where such criticism is not taken personally by its recipients. The CriticalSpirit page seems to say that critics should just assume that such an environment exists, and to not worry about people's feelings - anyone who takes offense is just immature and unprofessional. I disagree; I think it is necessary to proactively take steps to create and nurture that kind of environment. AskPermissionBeforeCriticizing is one way to help create that environment.

Instead of criticizing afterwards, why not teach beforehand? Instead of searching someone's code for uninitialized variables, why not show him techniques to ensure variables are initialized? If the uninitialized variable was a recurring pattern in the individual's code, then the criticism is of no value in preventing the mistake from reoccurring. If the uninitialized variable was a rare oversight, then again, the criticism is of no value in preventing the mistake from recurring; just silently fix the problem. To repeat the prior question, what advantages arise from criticism?


Am I the only one who finds it ironic that this page is being criticized by people who say that one should never criticize? -- KrisJohnson
 Answer: ironic (3)  not ironic(0)
Maybe that's because the words "criticize", "criticism", and "critical" have a more loaded connotation in the context of this Wiki than in day-to-day conversation. -- francis


Suppose this applied to real life? How many real-life people would take the time to criticize one so delicate as to require permission to criticize? Would it not be better to just leave them in the fantasyland of their own making? Where they never learn but what they want to learn, never go anywhere but where they want to go, never work more than they want to work, never allow anything seemingly unreasonable to their sensibilities to be done to them, never accept responsibilities for what they do, to think their work and words are above criticism and should not be subject to others testing, validation and criticism.

My experience has been that the vast majority of people on this earth genuinely want to learn, but that desire is easier to bring out if you do it a way that's respectful and non-confrontational.

Ok, then they should learn first that CriticsAreYourBestFriends. This is the only right foundation for true learning. Give up your pretension of being smart and accept that CriticsAreYourBestFriends. AskPermissionBeforeCriticizing is for weenies. It's insulting to someone's intelligence and integrity to ask him for permission to criticize. It's like asking are you not that kind of moron that gets offended for no good reason?. Ok, if you suspect he is a moron then you better ask, and who knows, he might be even flattered. The best advice is then to move on and avoid having to deal with this kind of person.

The other problem is that sometimes it happens that the morons we're talking about are in a position of power where they can impact you whether you deal with them or not. So then dealing with them in a hypocritical fashion may be justified and a good thing to do.

The best solution to this problem is not to AskPermissionBeforeCriticizing, but rather persuading them to believe that if they need to change something, it will not be a result of any criticism of yours (be sure that even if you asked for permission, it's not welcome). Make them believe it is them who came up with a bright idea. This is a well known technique for dealing with morons, consequently I think that we should commit to avoid such things on wiki.

It would be great if we could assume that people know that CriticsAreYourBestFriends, but only a moron would assume so. The basic rule of "people skills" is that you have to deal with people as they are, not as you would like them to be. You can't demand or expect that other people's minds operate by your rules. There are plenty of smart people who are overly sensitive to criticism, and plenty of morons who are not sensitive to it at all--intelligence and talent have nothing to do with it. Fatigue and stress can cause even the strongest of people to become defensive. Unless you work exclusively with Vulcans and androids, you need to consider people's emotional responses if you want to communicate effectively with them.

If you think some person would be offended by simple politeness, then don't be polite when talking to that person, but such people are rare. I do agree that AskPermissionBeforeCriticizing would be a bad thing to do in wiki, in academic circles, in design review meetings, or anywhere else that it is clearly unnecessary, but that doesn't mean it is inappropriate for other parts of "real life".


A few very interesting points:

You can't demand or expect that other people's minds operate by your rules.

Of course not. Still people are demanded and expected to operate by some common sense group rules, that's the basic of society. And there are societies and societies (speaking of group of people). CriticsAreYourBestFriends is not my rule, but is rather a commonly agreed rule in the circles that formed me as an intellectual and shape my formation. I would rather not waste much time in societies where CriticsAreYourBestFriends is not among the unwritten rules. Yes, in the large overall society, this rule is not agreed upon and even considered an AntiPattern. So be it, my mentors taught me to be careful and "stay away from the herd".

There are plenty of smart people who are overly sensitive to criticism.

They may be smart but not that smart after all, are they? If they are smart, it should be easier for them to learn that CriticsAreYourBestFriend?. If you want to be friends with such persons that you know they are smart and have affinities with, but are overly sensitive to criticism, one thing you know is because they are smart they'll have no problem assimilating CriticsAreYourBestFriends. Be upfront about that, and try to help them understand that lesson instead of asking for permission and let them be deluded into thinking that they're granting you a favor. That's what good friends are for after all, not to flatter but to criticize.

If you think some person would be offended by simple politeness.

Now you made me curious. Please give me a practical example. Imagine that we stay face to face, and we talk about AskPermissionBeforeCriticizing (or any topic it suits your example). How exactly (in what words) would you ask me for permission to criticize without sounding ridiculous. Somebody on this page mentioned something very smart: don't do it. If you have to ask for permission, it's better not to criticize at all.

There are many ways to adjust criticism to the situation, from CriticizeBluntly down to CriticizeSoftly? to "make them believe is their idea" to "don't say nothing at all, observe and move on". The very last thing in the world I would do, even from a social skills point of view is to ask permission.

It's a loose loose proposition: you either sound ridiculous, or you sound flattering/hypocritical, or they'll give you a formal permission just to save face in the context, and they'll get back against you later when you least expect (have you considered this scenario?). What's the point?

I've explained it as clearly as I know how. If you think it's ridiculous, I can live with that.

I understand and appreciate your advice (by the way, don't consider this empty flattering). Maybe this pattern should have been named something like "Give Subtle Hints", and "Carefully Test The Ground", which we all should agree are valuable skills when you walking mine fields (well, let's hope we're all walking fields of gold). Ask permission before criticizing really sounds bad to my ears.

But here's what happens in Real Life (TM): you give subtle hints, explore the territory, ask "Do you want to know my opinion ?" in a typical design meeting. The culprit will always say yes. What else can he say? Chances are that he is stubborn (we already assume that he gets not CriticsAreYourBestFriends). He will pretend to welcome your idea, but gloss it over, even with a little bit of flattering. If he's in very serious error maybe he will correct the course but he will remember the "happening". If his ideas are just worse than yours but not catastrophic, be sure he'll make every effort (read dirty trick) to win the argument, and you already just created yourself a serious handicap by asking permission.

Either way, the person in question already perceives you as a critic in any way you want to put it, even if a "polite critic", typically this only makes a superficial difference or even worse, the person in question will think of you as a cunning critic. This means a "competitive threat" in his career ambitions. What do you do? With people who don't "get" CriticsAreYourBestFriends, you're in serious trouble.
"May I request permission to tell you your work really sucks?"

Alternatively PutIdeasInTheirMouth?.


See also CriticalSpirit, CriticalStyle, CriticsAreYourBestFriends, DontCriticizeCondemnOrComplain


CategoryCriticism

EditText of this page (last edited May 30, 2013) or FindPage with title or text search