How to be a critic

I’ve mentioned constructive (I don’t like to call it rebuke, that’s for parents and teachers) criticism in posts in the past, and I thought a longer post about it might be warranted. What exactly is constructive criticism?

Did you know that just like it’s a mitzvah to rebuke someone, it’s a mitzvah not to if you know it’s not likely to be listened to? More often than not, my response is to turn a blind eye, and work on being machmir with myself instead, but sometimes, it has to happen. Here are some tips for being heard, without humiliating anyone or destroying a friendship. (FYI, yes, this post is long, but it’s worth reading. There’s a link to a short form at the bottom.)

  1. Keep a pleasant voice
    Start with something kind and friendly, such as ‘Hey, Shprintza, do you have a moment?’
  2. Move it to a private place
    99% of the time, this isn’t just an ‘if possible.’ Most people will willingly come somewhere quiet for a moment, but if no-where quiet can be found, you should almost definitely wait until later. This is to avoid anyone accidentally overhearing, which could be lashon Harah as well as rather embarrassing. Use your discretion! Also, keep a quiet tone of voice– my ‘inside voice’ carries quiet well sometimes, so I have to constantly remind myself to go one level softer than I would otherwise– if you think that will help.
  3. Again, be cheerful and non-judgmental.
    You should approach this at an angle of ‘You know, I’ve noticed sometimes that you blablabla bla bla. I don’t know if you realized but that’s really abababab. I thought you might want to know that smurfy smurfy smurf.’ You can’t deny that you noticed what their doing, but for your own peace of mind as much as for the other person you should assume that they didn’t know better. Often, that’s all it is. Even when you know that they probably do know and just need a reminder, taking that tone can get you listened to. Also, have you ever heard about ‘I statements’ vs. ‘You statements?’ Even when you’re talking to someone else about them, ‘I statements’ can soften your words. Look above for an example.
  4. Do NOT patronize
    Approach them as a friend, on their level. You’re just giving advice.
  5. If relevant, offer to help in the future
    Sometimes, one little reminder is all it takes. But if your ‘notice’ is a bolt out of the blue for the other person, or they’re genuinely interested in learning more, remind them that you’re available to follow up.
  6. Plan what you’re going to say before you say it.
    When I have something important to say, at any time, I know I’m not always going to get it right on the first time. So, I’ll rehearse it in my head beforehand. (This is helpful beyond measure in all areas of life.) Often, I can’t find a quiet place for some time, and that gives me the chance I need. When you’re planning, think about your friend’s nature. Are they the sensitive type who needs to be gradually led to an idea, or are they blunt and straightforward and would much rather just hear ‘Um, Sarah, you’ve got a huge run in those tights and you might want to find a new pair STAT’?
  7. Don’t heap it all on at once
    It’s happened more than once where I’ll say something that doesn’t even really register as criticism, ‘Lea, that bun looks great but there’s a cute little curl sticking out at the back. Just in case you don’t have eyes in the back of your head;’ and then, notice or see shortly after something that fits the ‘do say’ conditions above. Maybe it’s just that I’m the sensitive type mentioned above, but I wouldn’t like so much ‘problem fixing’ all at once. Unless it’s something really really minor (you be the judge) I’d rather wait a little while and see if the problem will resolve itself. Sometimes, it does, and then you don’t have to say two things at all.
  8. Remember, you can ask a mentor if you’re not sure.
    They are always available. If you don’t want to get ‘the authorities’ involved in whatever minor thing this person did, you can leave out names and the most crucial details, or ask someone who dosn’t know your friend. Sometimes, though, knowing both sides of the story can give a more careful response. And, above all these tips, DAVEN!!

Whew, that was quiet the post! Makes up for all the other weeks, I hope. In all seriousness, though, the goal of reading this isn’t for you to become an expert at criticizing your friends. We’re all perfect :), and I hope you’ll never need these skills. This way, though, if you ever see the need, you’ll have a better idea of how to encourage maximum improvement with minimal pain.

(Pocket guide! here, along with a few more tips.)

Constructive Criticism 2

I hesitate to point an issue to someone, partly because often, it’s sad to hear that the person is fully aware of it and just doesn’t really care, and partly because I value my hard-built relationships with my friends and don’t wish to be so critical of them. So, when I saw a friend in an iffy situation, right after I’d politely mentioned that her hair looked perfect except for that one little spot, I didn’t say anything. Even with a good, positive-outlook friend, two ‘nags’ in five minutes, however minor, just felt bad to me. I couldn’t imagine how much worse it must feel on the listening end, especially first thing in the morning.

But later that afternoon, I saw it again. And though my instinct these days is ‘look right by’,’ this time, it wasn’t. I mentioned that I was sure she didn’t know, but that this was technically something that could end in a ‘rule infraction mark.’

Her response was genuine disbelief, and an immediate ‘thank you for telling me!’ She made me feel a little better about judging my friends favorably– some people truly do want to be corrected, provided it’s done with kindness and tact.

A light in the dark

The recent stabbing attacks in Israel have all been so horrific, but this one stands out. A 13 year old on his bike. Where I live, if you stay away from the traffic, nothing could be more prosaic. Stabbed by two boys, one his age, one a little older.

Here is some light. We all know how amazing Hatzolah/Magen David Adom is. Here’s a new one. A Hatzolah member picking his child up from a playdate while off duty stopped to answer a question from someone in the family– a, if Heaven forbid this happens, how do we work around xyz already existing issue?– question. Of course they would. It’s just another way for them to preempt a crisis and potentially save a life.

But still– look at it deeper. Maybe you just had to be there to appreciate the encouraging, kind tone that was used. The willingness to stay however long the question took. The way his child stood waiting patiently the entire time. The fact that we’re a nation where something like this isn’t breaking news… just a part of life. So normal it’s exceptional.

Wishing you all good health and protection to all the residents of Israel.

Impact

A week or two ago, I was walking through the neighborhood when two little girls passed by on bikes. The second fell off about three feet past me. Concerned, especially since she might have fallen swerving past me (though I was nowhere close), I went back to see if she was ok.

Her sister told me that she was fine, and the girl sprang to her feet. All was well, but as left, I mentioned that I knew someone who even with a helmet, nearly smashed his skull open riding a bike. Not the most encouraging or forceful message, and I wasn’t surprised when they just walked on. I wished I could have done a better job.

Or could I have? Today, when walking along a nearby route, I saw two girls biking down a hill, with helmets. And I’m 95% sure they were the same people.

Happy un-birthday

Today I had the privileged of witnessing, right out of the blue, one friend surprise another with a gift—an antique book.

Not only was it by one of her favourite authors, she loved every bit of it, from the binding to the plastic bag it had been sealed in. She was so happy she was nearly floating, and to the best of my knowledge, as of writing this, her feet still haven’t touched the floor!

Noteworthy

One of the staff members at my school has been having a hard time lately, and one day I guess it really showed. We all politely waited for her to compose herself and move on with her speech.

A day or two later, at our daily assembly, she publically thanked whoever had been the kind person who left a very thoughtful note in her office. She did this publicly, because in spite of the benefits of being on good terms with an influential staff member… the student hadn’t signed her name.