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Reject Both Criticism and Praise. Instead, Ask for Data

Criticism gets a bad rap. No one wants to be criticized. Rather than criticism, we would prefer to accept praise. But why stop at two equally bad choices? Why not reject both criticism and praise and instead ask for data?

When you are criticized, you feel bad. Your stomach forms a knot. Your palms get sweaty. Your head starts to spin. Time stands still. And you stop listening. Criticism feels terrible. But, you know you "need" a healthy dose of it because, like medicine, it might do you good. But let's face it. The medicine of criticism is never really welcome. If you had a choice between criticism and praise, you might prefer praise. But is praise the right choice?

Praise feels really good. The clouds part and the sun shines through. The chirping of the birds get louder and more beautiful. You heart skips merrily inside your chest wall. Your smile is so big your cheeks start to hurt. Praise feels good! Praise seems to carry none of the baggage of criticism; however, both can be equally damaging.

Neither criticism or praise gives you actionable information. Criticism can bring on feelings of shame and judgement while praise might lead to elation and euphoria. But neither one gives you information you can act upon. They do give you information, but not about your performance. Both praise and criticism give you information about the "praiser" or the "critiquer." They give you information about the source.

In giving either a critique or a praise, the source is giving you information about themselves. They are telling you what they like and what they don't like. In a sense, they are telling you about resonance. When they criticize, they are saying, "There is something about your performance that I don't resonate with." When they praise, they are saying, "There is something about your performance that I resonate with." The positive or negative resonance may be based on feelings, emotions, past experiences, or current hurts. But you don't know which it is until you ask. To find out what they are positively or negatively resonating with, you need data.

The data you get from either criticism or praise is muddled at first. Do they hate your work because it reminds them of their obnoxious ex? Or do they love your work because you remind them of a younger version of themselves? If either is the case, that data is is neither helpful nor actionable. You can't do much about the obnoxious ex. And you can't do much to change your looks. But beyond these surface preferences, what else could be going on? What additional data can you can extract that helps you take action?

You want neither praise nor criticism; rather, you want actionable feedback. So get work to get the feedback you need. One way to do that is to ask good questions such as:

  1. What is it about my work that resonates with you?

  2. What is it about the work that you don't like?

  3. How could the work be improved?

  4. What aspect of the work makes it stand out in particular?

These kinds of questions help break the source out of their inward reverie so that they can give you information to act on. By asking good questions, you clarify the source of the praise or criticism. If the praise aligns with solid principles that make sense, you can work to achieve it again because you know it is not just a personal preference. Similarly, if you isolate the source of their annoyance and it seems relevant to your work, you get to decide how to incorporate their feedback into improving your work.

Both praise and criticism can be damaging because they distract you enough to keep you from getting actionable information that moves you forward. Remember, to move forward in your work, you need information. When people praise or criticize you, your job is to help them give you the kind of information that you can act on.

What are some ways in which either praise or criticism has derailed your work?

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