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The Human Story: Terror & Discord

“We are the children of conflict. Keep this in mind when you read the news. Things may seem dramatically bad sometimes. News of violence interrupts our lives daily. Terror and discord. Politicians who gamble entire nations, for the sake of their own careers. Mass killers who wreak havoc on innocents, dying with a gun in their hand. And yet this is our human story. Conflict makes us stronger, as a species. Our response to the psychopaths who drive such events may appear panicked. Yet it tends, inevitably, towards building a stronger, more peaceful society.” — Pieter Hintjens

Giving & Receiving Criticism

We need less harshness and more humility.

It is extremely difficult to deliver criticism productively and equally difficult to receive it productively. This is basically because most critiques boil down to “You’re doing something wrong,” which people tend to automatically interpret as “You are bad and I want you to feel bad.” Sometimes the intent is actually to shame, but I believe that most of the time people want to improve the world and their critiques are put forth with a genuine desire for mutual betterment. The problem is execution, on both sides.

I’ve struggled with this personally. It took me at least ten years to realize that hostility and defensiveness were not a good reaction to being criticized, and even longer to stop manifesting defensive hostility despite this epiphany. I haven’t perfectly mastered this — far from it! — but I am much more likely now to react to criticism calmly than I used to be.

The mindset that got me here was a focus on productivity or perhaps constructiveness rather than rightness. Effective communication that furthers your goals is way more satisfying than the fleeting glee of driving home a point. The well-known irony is that an obsession with being right is a sign of intellectual insecurity, whereas openness to changing your opinion is a sign of intellectual strength. It’s healthier to view criticism (assuming it’s delivered with basic respect) as an invitation to collaborate rather than the opening blow of a fight.

Even when a critique is offered unpleasantly, the only two productive reactions are 1) neutral curiosity — e.g. “Can you tell me more about why you say that?” — or 2) complete non-engagement. Far better to ignore someone whose critiques annoy or offend you than to blow up at them. (I know this because I’ve burned bridged by doing the latter! It stinks for everyone!)

Geoff Greer on Twitter: "How to substantially improve Internet discussions: Next to every comment box, have the reminder, 'Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?'"
Geoff Greer on Twitter.

I’ve also gotten a lot better at delivering criticism, thanks to the people who critiqued me right back. It’s an ongoing struggle, because I default to bluntness and I love feeling witty, which is usually not conducive to productive discourse. (I am constantly trying and failing to suppress my desire to mock other people’s ideas or efforts when I perceive them as ill-advised or substandard. Basically all of my deleted tweets can be attributed to gleeful jerkitude and immediate remorse.)

I don’t employ the compliment-sandwich technique (alternately called a “shit sandwich”) but I try to make my positive intentions explicitly clear. Example: “I hope this doesn’t come across as an attack; I am trying to be upfront but I don’t want to hurt you.” I use a lot of massaging words to soften the message. I frame things as questions as much as possible: “Can you help me understand your thinking regarding XYZ? To me it seems ABC, but I’m curious about your strategy and perspective.”

Illustration by Daniel Garrido.
Illustration by Daniel Garrido.

Am I good at this? Not at all. It runs counter to my personality and my natural instincts. But I think it’s worth trying to get better, because communication that feels emotionally safe to all parties is vital to progress of any kind. Working with other people can be incredibly rewarding in terms of both process and outcomes. Humble criticism habits are key! It’s easy to deliver positive feedback well, but delivering negative feedback in a constructive way is also crucial to excellent results and therefore a valuable skill.

My thoughts on this were sparked by the app-pricing debate between Samantha Bielefeld and Marco Arment, which I tweetstormed about this morning.

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