Giving and Receiving Criticism

11 Ideas for Giving Criticism
  1. Remember - your goal is to help someone else be more successful. Your goal is to improve their manuscript or presentation, unless it is without flaw already (and who is perfect, after all?)
    1. Giving criticism is a lifestyle, not an event.  Learn to give constructive criticism on a frequent basis in your professional activities,  not just once per year or exclusively at high profile events. 
      1. Make your goals clear  - to yourself first and then to the person whose work you are criticizing.  What are your expectations for the work that you are criticizing?  Are those expectations realistic and fair?  If this is a draft of a thesis chapter or a term paper, you should not have the same expectations that you should have for a published refereed article. 
        1. Golden Rule - treat others as you would like to be treated when you are criticized. Treat the person whose work you are criticizing with respect. Don't condescend or condemn. Make it real - insincere statements about contributions can be insulting and demoralizing. Don’t rush to judgment about character - criticism is about actions, behaviour and performance, it is not about character. Avoid comparisons with others, eg.  “Person X did a much better job on this than you did.  Try to follow her example.” Acknowledge the contribution as well as indicate areas for improvement. Don’t be afraid to identify areas for improvement - if you can’t find any room for improvement, you are not doing your job - likewise, if you can’t find any contribution to acknowledge.
          1. Limit your comments to things that you know something about.  Tell the person whose work you are criticizing a little bit about your area(s) of expertise.
            1. Be specific and immediate. Deal with the report, presentation or action that is here and now. Avoid reference to past performance - that should have been criticized when it happened.  Refer to specific aspects of the report etc.  - give page numbers and even line numbers. A Formula: On page  ___ it is stated that   “_______________”.  The limitation of this statement is _______________ because ____________.  An alternative way to address this issue would be to _________________.  
              1. Take the time and care to be fair and clear. Proofread your report for tone or listen to yourself critically. The person receiving your criticism has a lot riding on your assessment. Give it the attention it deserves. This is not easy work for you or for the person receiving your criticism.
                1. Give perspective - what are your key points?  Separate general and technical comments from editorial comments.  Put the most important comments first.  Few things are more demoralizing for a writer than to have struggled to put difficult ideas on paper and then to receive feedback that starts with a detailed list of spelling mistakes and error in style or composition.
                2. Learn to monitor your emotions.  If you find yourself getting frustrated, angry or generally peeved, go ahead and write down what you are thinking, but give yourself some time to cool off before you send someone your review of their work. 
                  1. Seek out criticism of your own work.  It is easy to develop bad habits by always being the critic and only rarely putting yourself in line for criticism.  Remember Popper - our knowledge tradition in (social) science is our commitment to giving and receiving criticism.
                    1. Strive to grow as a critic.  Ask for feedback on your feedback.  Have a colleague read your review report (excising material if necessary, if it is a double blind review) or your comments to students on term papers.  Circulate your written comments on graduate student work to the whole advisory committee, not just to the student.  Learn about choosing your words carefully.  Observe how critics that you respect as critics do criticism.      
                    12 Ideas for Receiving Criticism
                    1. Assume that the person giving the criticism hasn't read the list above!
                      1. Start with listening (or reading).  Read or listen to the criticism in its entirety if you can.  Initially, ask only questions of clarification.  Leave evaluation of criticism that you have received until you are sure that you have heard it and understood it.  Resist the urge to fight (react defensively , “That is not what I said at all” or “You jerk, I know more about this than you!”) or flee (“I am a worthless turd and I have no right to be here”).  Look past that actual words and try to see the ideas of your critic (if your critics words are not well chosen).
                        1. Learn to monitor your emotions.  If you find yourself getting frustrated, angry or generally peeved, make some notes, thank the person for their criticism and then  give yourself some time to cool off.  Then reply to the person who has reviewed your work.
                          1. Remember - your goal in seeking criticism is to improve your paper or presentation.
                            1. Perspective - Develop a habit of seeking  criticism often and from a variety of sources: fellow students, instructors, advisors, colleagues. Ask yourself the following questions.
                              Am I hearing similar things from different sources? Does my critic have expertise relevant to what I am trying to do? Does this criticism have realistic expectations (eg. Is this critic expecting a finished product and I am working on a preliminary draft?). As you ask for criticism, explain your expectations (eg. “Here is a draft of my term paper.  Could you read it and tell me what you think about the general ideas?  I realize that the format and style is rough, but I will be working on that later.” or “I am giving this presentation at a major conference in two weeks - play devil’s advocate for me so I can get a sense of how people in the audience might react to my work”). Be realistic as you seek criticism.  Just because you have left completing your paper/chapter/presentation to the last minute, that doesn’t mean that someone is obliged to give you feedback overnight because your deadline is 9:00 am tomorrow morning.
                              1. Cultivate self - checking. Notice what frustrates you in the performance of others. Learn to eliminate the things that irritate you and that you know irritate others in written work. 
                                1. Remember that persistence is more important than talent!
                                  1. Acknowledge criticism and respond as specifically as possible.
                                    1. Permit yourself to make mistakes!
                                      1. Don't use obfuscation as a method of forestalling criticism.  It is better to be clearly wrong than vaguely right!  And it is much better to be clearly wrong that vaguely wrong!
                                        1. Guard against becoming defensive - ideas are being discussed, not your self-worth!  Try the paper on the table exercise. Put your paper on the table and say to yourself:  I am not this paper. This criticism is directed at this paper, not at myself." This will help you not to take criticism personally.
                                          1. Remember, regardless of how it feels at the time, YOUR CRITIC IS YOUR BEST FRIEND!


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