When should you seek criticism?

A while ago I wrote a post about the incredible value of seeking criticism. Today, someone asked me how we should decide when to seek criticism. Or, as he put it, when should we expect other people to have a better understanding of us than we ourselves do?

Here are some rules of thumb. It’s generally a good idea to seek criticism from others when:

  1. You care about having an accurate understanding of how others perceive you. It is easy to go for decades without realizing that your posture makes you seem like you lack confidence, or that people find the speed at which you talk hard to follow. Those that know you well and new acquaintances can provide different sorts of information in this area. Friends have a hard time remembering what it was like to see you for the first time (so can’t comment as usefully on surface level information), whereas acquaintances will be unaware of how you act when you’re not around new people.
  2. You have an important weakness that it pains you to think about. When ideas are painful to consider, we often don’t think about them as deeply as we should. That means we can easily end up with only a shallow understanding of the weaknesses we most dislike about ourselves. Others who are affected by our weaknesses can help us understand them better if we ask. But when receiving this sort of criticism we run a serious risk of feeling angry and defensive at what we hear, so we have to be sure we are ready to receive this criticism before we ask for it.
  3. When you are trying to enhance your relationship with a particular person. Even if someone likes you a great deal, there are probably at least a few things you do that he or she would rather you didn’t, or a few things you don’t do that he or she would rather you do. Asking for honest feedback on how you could be a better friend, or which behaviors the person would prefer you stop, and then making those adjustments can be a great way to make that person (even) happier with the relationship.
  4. When you want to accurately understand the extent of your skill, and you’re talking to someone much more skilled than yourself. Sometimes, it’s valuable to know exactly where we stand in terms of skill. Seeking criticism from someone more expert than yourself can help settle questions such as whether you really have what it takes to play professional soccer, or whether a physics PhD is really for you. That’s not to say that you can’t occasionally exceed the expectations even of experts. But knowing where an expert thinks you stand can give you a more realistic sense of your capacity.

There are of course other situations besides those lists above when seeking criticism is valuable, but the above list highlights some times when it can be especially useful to do so. So seek criticism in order to better understand how others perceive you, to know your weaknesses, to enhance your relationships, and to assess your true level of skill.

2 thoughts on “When should you seek criticism?

  1. Katie says:

    I’d add:

    (1) When you suspect that the sunk cost fallacy is in play. Even if you understand the implications of the bias, it’s really difficult to objectively evaluate a situation once you’d paid heavily toward a particular outcome.

    (2) When you’re uncomfortable with thinking about ways your situation/project/idea might fail. This is similar to your #2, but it takes the onus off yourself. Sometimes your own weaknesses have little or nothing to do with the flaws of a plan, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense in the long run.

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