(Constructive) Criticism is a Favor

A few years ago, a prospective student, we’ll call her Mayu, told me that she hesitated to take the GLOBIS Critical Thinking course because she didn’t like to argue.

She thought that arguing really meant fighting, and critical thinking seemed filled with just that.

There’s a difference between an argument and having an argument, I told her. An argument is a considered discussion searching for a better answer rather than aiming to win a fight, which is having an argument.

Anyway, my argument wasn’t strong enough, as she still shied away from the course.

Mayu came to mind recently because a friend shared the following Twitter comment (translated from Japanese):

Eriko Imai, the former singer from Speed and current politician said,
“Let’s have an election without any criticism.”

As you might guess, in an age where even the U.S. president commonly attacks individuals via Twitter, the response to her tweet was withering.

After such experience, it may be hard for Ms. Imai to imagine, but most of those disagreeing and attacking her may have legitimate concerns and reasonable positions, despite the obvious unreasonableness of many (other) people.

Whether in politics or business, truly difficult problems cannot be solved without constructive criticism. Without arguments, deeper truths cannot be uncovered, and lasting, meaningful solutions cannot be created.

What does this mean for daily interaction? When people disagree with you, critiquing your argument— they are doing you a favor. It may not be a welcome favor. It may not appear to be anything near an act of kindness, but it may be just that—and a way to contribute to a better result.

If a reasonable, well-informed person disagrees with you, they are making an effort to change your perception of the world. They may not successfully change your mind (people tend to become entrenched when their opinion is challenged too strongly). However, disagreement should give you the opportunity to stop and ask: Why would this person disagree? Is it because they are inherently evil? (Unlikely.) Do they hate me personally and disagree with me because they don’t like anything about me, even my opinions? (Maybe.)

But it’s more likely that they differ in two key ways:

1) They interpret the evidence presented differently, making different inferences about the causes and the meaning of the situation.

2) They have different priorities—weighing the evidence and probable outcomes of specific solutions differently than you.

That is why they disagree.

These people are valuable to you. They’ll tell you about a world that you don’t inhabit, that you may not even have known existed or considered worth knowing. 

So, let them speak, let them explain. They will give you a better understanding of the problem and how others view the world.

Listening to a reasonable person disagree will help you to reevaluate your position—to see its weaknesses and inconsistencies. It will also help you to understand that person and how you might persuade them. Of course, the person may ultimately persuade you that their idea is better, or at least that you should modify your position. All of these are positives.

There is no loss in rethinking your position, modifying it, or even changing it. The only loss is when more thoughtful arguments and better ideas are ignored.

Try to assume that the person who is disagreeing and critiquing your argument is doing so with good intent. Having your argument critiqued clarifies and improves it. A disagreement is an opportunity to learn something. Don’t waste it insisting you’re right and hiding from criticism.

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