PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: A LESSON FROM THOMAS JEFFERSON
Regular readers of this blog know that in the past I’ve written quite a bit about the five levels of maturity for providing negative criticism. In fact, I had written so much about it that I had come to believe that perhaps I had said all that was needed to be said on the subject. To my pleasant surprise, while reading Jon Meacham’s fine new Thomas Jefferson biography, The Art of Power, I’ve identified a new valuable principle to consider. With that in mind, let’s briefly review what we previously covered on providing negative criticism. Then we’ll take a look at this new Jeffersonian idea.
Providing Negative Criticism: Summarizing the Highest Levels of Maturity
As we discussed in earlier posts on this blog, the two highest levels of maturity for providing negative criticism (levels 4 and 5) can be summarized as follows:
Level 4. The criticizer states the criticism without bodily attacks, damaging property, glares, insults, threats, or shouts, and with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance. If the person receiving the criticism becomes defensive or angry, the criticizer empathizes without returning glares, insults, threats, or shouts.
Level 5. When the criticizer provides criticism, he or she does so in a manner very similar to a level 4 response, but beforehand, the criticizer considers the person who is the target of the criticism and the situation that he or she is in. As a result of such considerations, the criticizer may decide to alter the criticism.
- Person variables that are considered: From observing how the person to be criticized handled criticism in the past, he or she determines which of the five levels of responding to criticism is most characteristic of the individual. (For example, if someone tends to physically attack the criticizer when criticized and is big enough to cause real bodily harm, then a decision is made either to not provide the criticism or to provide it only when there is sufficient security, or else someone else is employed to provide the criticism who is capable of dealing safely with the attack prone person.) Other person variables considered are how sensitive the person is when criticized, is the person to be criticized currently in an angry or sad mood, is the criticism likely to be perceived as particularly difficult to bear, versus something likely to be viewed as a relatively minor matter, and if the criticizer’s relationship with the person to be criticized is less than ideal. Depending on such variables, consideration is given to waiting until the person is in a pleasant mood and enlisting someone else to provide the criticism such as a more neutral person, a friend, or someone who is admired by the person who will be criticized. When the person to be criticized is particularly sensitive about an issue, a fictionalized story with a character who displays the offending behavior may be presented, and then the character’s behavior is discussed.
- Situation characteristics that are considered: Are there other people around that will lead to face saving behavior coming into play? Is there enough time set aside to process the criticism? Has the person who is to provide the criticism been providing too much negative criticism in too short a period of time? (In this case, consideration is given to waiting until some time goes by in which some positive things are said over the course of several days before hitting the person to be criticized over the head yet again!)
The Jeffersonian Principle for Providing Negative Criticism
If you study carefully the level 5 description that I provided above, you will see that an important person variable to consider before providing criticism is whether or not the criticizer’s relationship with the person to be criticized is less than ideal. Whenever I presented that idea in the past, I suggested that if Jack does not have a good relationship with Judy and he wants to provide some criticism to Judy, he might be wise to consider whether or not it would be better to see if he could get someone who does have a good relationship with Judy to provide the criticism. This remains sound advice. But upon reading Meacham’s biography on Jefferson, I now have something to add.
To introduce this new idea, I think it is useful to understand that Jefferson, himself, was very sensitive when others provided him negative criticism. We see this in several existing documents. For example, in a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson said that the criticism he received while war governor of Virgina “had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”
In another letter, this one sent while serving as an American ambassador in Paris to Francis Hopkinson, Jefferson wrote:
“My great wish is to go on in a strict but silent performance of my duty: to avoid attracting notice and to keep my name out of newspapers, because I find the pain of a little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise.”
Perhaps because of this sensitivity to criticism, early in a relationship Jefferson, rather than seeking ways to find fault in his new companion, used a more supportive style. As his biographer describes this style, people often talk too much and listen too little, which can be self-defeating, for in many instances the surer route to winning a friend is not to convince them that you are right but that you care what they think. Everyone wants to believe that what they have to say is fascinating, illuminating, and possibly even epochal.
I love the story that Meacham tells about a Virginia matron of the old school who often hosted Jefferson at her table. She liked to boast that Jefferson never failed to inquire with great particularity how her best dishes were cooked. Though she suspected that charm was at work–even flattery–she was also convinced by the apparent sincerity of Jefferson’s manner of listening. “I know this was half to please me,” she allowed, “but he’s a nice judge of things, and you may depend upon it, he won’t throw away anything he learns worth knowing.”
Now, there are times in a new relationship when you find that you disagree with your new companion. Should you confront the person? If not, what should you do if you say something that was not meant to be critical but you find that your companion takes offense and is now in an angry state?
Jefferson advised a daughter: “Much better…if our companion views a thing in a light different from what we do, to leave him in quiet possession of his view. What is the use of rectifying him if the thing be unimportant; and if important let it pass for the present, and wait a softer moment and more conciliatory occasion of revising the subject together.”
One of the main desires that people have is to be liked. If we criticize people before we establish that we like them, they are much more likely to feel that we will not like them. This dramatically increases the likelihood of heightened levels of defensiveness. If, instead, we seek first to establish that we do esteem our new companions, and then show a willingness to drop discussions that are beginning to turn angry until a later, more peaceful time, perhaps this would be a wiser course of action.
Now, to be sure, there were situations in which Jefferson did not wait until he had established a warm, friendly relationship with a person before providing negative criticism. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, for example, he knew it would end up reaching the eyes of the King of England. And there is no question that the document flings direct negative criticism at the King’s conduct. In this situation, despite not having first established a warm, friendly relationship with the King, Jefferson fully supported publicly publishing this obviously inflammatory document.
A teacher monitoring the hallways at school, upon hearing a student insulting another student with the ‘n’ word may feel compelled in that situation to firmly intervene in a manner that will come across as negative criticism. There are public internet forums in which disagreements can be fruitfully aired among individuals who know practically nothing of one another. And so, we still have to consider each individual situation before deciding the best way to deal with criticism. But at the highest levels of maturity, Jefferson offers us a wise option.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.