If you have read How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936 by Dale Carnegie, you know that the very first principle is “don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.”
Carnegie includes several examples of folks from politicians to criminals – who despite evident and obvious wrongdoing – could rationalize their every action.
If truth doesn’t matter and if everything can be rationalized – what’s the point?
That thought was so depressing, the first time I read it, I almost tossed my paperback across the room. Following the current political discussion on social media – observing the way people debate, how they say it as much as what they say- only seems to affirm Carnegie’s point. And yet, I know we need criticism to improve. I use criticism and feedback every single day to improve my own work. How can criticism be futile? The “simple” answer is Carnegie is both right and wrong.
I think there are people who understand how to receive criticism and use it productively. There are people who either, by nature or nurture are better at applying feedback; they know not to take criticism personally, and as yogis often say, “take what they need, leave what they don’t.” Hearing, listening and using criticism is a skill to be worked on.
“Give respect. Get Respect.” – George Nasuti, high school principal, man of principle, coach, referee, my uncle.
Nearly everyone has used criticism to improve at some point in their life. Whether or not feedback is received successfully has everything to do with “respect.” Carnegie may argue that a person will only apply criticism from folks that are already in their circle; those folks that have already earned their trust as a friend, confidante, coach, teacher or mentor. Since Carnegie is writing about how to win friends not what to do once you have them, this may have been beyond the scope of his work, but I think bears some thought.
Better advice than to simply avoid offering criticism is to first consider whether you can offer it in a manner that is true (researched, reasoned, includes multiple perspectives), kind (can it be put in such a way that it will not hurt, anger or offend), and necessary (will it be heard? is it useful? will it improve the silence?). In fact, in Carnegie’s section on leadership, he does touch upon how to do just that. My argument, from eighty years in the future, is that we are all leaders.