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May 11 2010

Reconstructing Criticism: Praise

Praise might seem like an incongruous topic for a discussion about criticism, but for constructive criticism, praise is hugely useful. One of the big differences between constructive and destructive criticism is the idea that the person being criticized is worth building up instead of tearing down. There isn’t a better way to reinforce that idea than to celebrate that person’s contributions.

Offering praise performs a couple of other functions as well. The first is that it provides a sense of perspective. When you start by listing the things that someone is doing right, it gets harder to overreact to something that is wrong. The second is that praise, particularly praise you don’t much feel like giving, requires an attention to detail that will help focus your criticism. I’ll discuss proportionality and specificity in other posts, but trust me for right now that they’re important.

Praise should come before criticism. Not only does it establish a friendly atmosphere for the delivery of unhappy news, but it also establishes common ground, important for persuasion. As someone gets into the habit of nodding along with you over the good stuff, they come to trust your judgment, at least to a degree. This makes them more likely to keep listening when you hit a point of disagreement. Ending with praise can also buy you more goodwill.

Praise should be unstinting and unironic, however much snark has hold in your heart. Praise that feels forced is a worse background for criticism than no praise at all. Someone who doesn’t appear to want to praise you is unlikely to be someone who genuinely wants to help and may, in fact, be someone with an undisclosed bias against you. They will not be someone you want to listen to.

Praise is one of the fundamentals of constructive criticism that we learn even as schoolchildren. That we don’t see it used and used well more often is more of a testament to the work involved than it is to its importance. Don’t forget praise.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    NewEnglandBob

    I am enjoying this series. It is almost a primer on everything I do wrong, being an emotional sort.One small point – snark resides all in the mind, not held in the heart.

  2. 2
    Glendon Mellow

    "Praise should be unstinting and unironic, however much snark has hold in your heart." I love the first half of that sentence. Irony and posed cynicism in the GenX/Y hipster crowds I'm with can get tiresome when it's not funny. Out and out praise is a tonic to give or receive.

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    I promise "Our Lady of Perpetual Win" is totally unironic.

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    Thanks, guys. I promise, though, I was not fishing for praise! :)Bob, you'll have to speak for your own heart. Mine is completely full of snark. I won't call it a flaw, but it is occasionally a handicap.

  5. 5
    Stacy

    I think you're awesome Stephanie!

  6. 6
    Jason Thibeault

    I dunno, Stephanie… I'm with Bob. MY heart is full of blood.

  7. 7
    Stephanie Zvan

    Jason, you have the heart of a language prescriptivist. ;)Stacy, I think you're pretty damned amazing yourself.

  8. 8
    Becca

    My heart is also full of blood. Snarky, snarky blood.

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