This isn't a lame ass guide on how to give constructive criticism. As important as it is, the advice people give is overdone AKA "Do a feedback sandwich. Focus on the situation, not the person". Conventional wisdom bullshit. I've always cared more about developing a better human radar of who and who not to give unsolicited criticism in my friendships and working life. Let's proceed.
Our lives would be so much more fulfilled if we don't hold back and constantly voice our unsolicited feedback for others IF we only knew the EXACT times when it is appropriate. A near impossible task – I fall in the boat of people who play it safe by avoiding it completely most of the times, and I suspect many of you are as well. But think of someone in your past who pointed out one of your weaknesses and it wonderfully changed you as a person. How grateful did you feel? Your memory might remember it as “advice" because it was so helpful or nonjudgemental. Would you ever want to do that for someone else?
I can imagine a future reality in which I am a person who never gives feedback out of fear. I would never experience the beauty of a connection that deepens from having improved a friend's life or being on the receiving end. It's safe, but it also kinda sucks.
Criticism is Scary
The reality is that mostly everyone is full of baggage when it comes to giving unsolicited criticism. In our working lives or personal friendships, nothing seems more high-stakes than the moment before you are ready to dish the harsh truth or are on the receiving end of that truth. The fear of the unknown has personally made me hold my tongue almost every time.
A person's reaction to criticism can be represented on a scale:
-Thanks! --- yeah yeah, sure ----------------------------- no F OFF-
If I were to give no fucks and freely yet tactfully give out criticism to my friends at will, most reactions would end up falling in the "Thanks!" zone or the "yeah, yeah" zone. Too much of it when it's uncalled for and they start to resent me. The "no F OFF" zone is interesting because there are 2 types of situations that would land me in this zone.
Not too hard to spot. Perhaps they rarely or never believe they're wrong. Chances are they don't want to hear it from you. This is easy to avoid because it's easy to spot.
A potentially life-changing moment for your friend that might also ruin your friendship
This one speaks for itself. The risk and reward are very high, and it's a difficult topic to weigh the pros/cons with so much grey zone. But this is not the topic at hand. Most of us can count hundreds of relatively low-risk moments in our lives when we back out of giving unsolicited criticism when it would have been beneficial to everyone involved.
So how can I acquire as many "thanks!" in our lives while minimizing the "yeah, yeah"s? Note that I did not ask the avoidant question "how can I try to avoid as many "yeah, yeah"s as possible? If you are weighing the cons over the pros, you've already lost. The risk will never go away, until you've tried and look back at your successes.
Why Giving Criticism is Much Harder
Truth be told, I am terrified of giving criticism to friends. I would not hesitate if I could know beforehand how a friend would react. But the problem is that there's no real way of telling in advance. Until now...
Julia Galef, a self-proclaimed rational thinker, no less, writes the clearest breakdown (that I've seen) of how a person can relate to unsolicited feedback: https://juliagalef.com/2017/01/01/a-model-of-who-benefits-from-unsolicited-criticism/
Essentially there are four attributes to look for that someone will not appreciate unsolicited criticism:
A) They ponder their own flaws frequently.
B) They think they are good at reading subtle feedback and probably would not appreciate more direct feedback
C) They think they are good at self-modifying themselves and would not appreciate gentle reminders.
D) They seem overly self-conscious day-to-day.
It's just so *ahem* rational to think about it in this way. After I read this – two questions naturally followed suit.
1) What is my own relationship with unsolicited criticism?
2) Who in my life has the traits to whom unsolicited criticism is valuable? Who doesn't? What is the best of course of action in both cases?
I think some people just have the aura that you wouldn't want to mess with them. Each one of the 4 attributes is analogous to wearing spiky chains or having a teardrop tattoo next to the eye. I personally would want people to feel safe giving me criticism. It doesn't matter how well you actually can handle criticism if no one around you seems willing to give it. I'll have to reconsider my behaviors as it relates to those 4 attributes.
A Quick Word On Taking Criticism
As a conflict-averse person, I've always defaulted to keeping my mouth shut, because you can learn so much from interpreting someone else's criticism no matter how sharp it is. See what I did there? To get a little emotional, yes my ego feels crushed, but I have a positive spin on it. The more painful it is, the more justified I feel I am in getting value out of it. Like, how wasteful would it be for that pain to disappear without learning anything and for it to potentially reappear in the future? Let's use it while it's here. Of course, not everyone is that masochistic :)