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“Don’t Criticize, Condemn, or Complain” – This is the central piece of advice given in How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I remember reading this last year and thinking, “Sounds like good advice. How hard can that be?” Alas, actually doing this is much harder than it seems.

I take this particular piece of advice to mean that we shouldn’t try to change what other people do. Since other people are doing what they’d like to do at any given moment, it in some ways insults them to say “what you’re doing is wrong”. Therefore, it makes sense to adapt ourselves to this person, and try to benefit from their good parts while minimizing the negative consequences.

It’s also very related to the stages of getting things done. By complaining, condemning, or criticizing, you’re placing the blame on other people, and not doing anything yourself to further the goal. You want other people to fix it, instead of actually doing something about it. Therefore, it’s more of the “I’m Going To Build A Tower!” stage, whereas actually fixing the problem is part of the “Leave Me Alone – I’m Working!” stage.

However, this does pose some interesting questions. How do you bring problems to other people’s attention, without it coming across as a complaint or criticism? This seems to be something that varies from person to person. Something as simple as “When you do this, you make me feel angry” can be regarded as an expression of trust by someone close to you and builds the relationship since you’re expressing your innermost feelings freely. However, by someone else, it can be regarded as an attack on their character, as if you’re blaming them for their lack of sensitivity in making you feel this way.

You could not say things like that ever, but that leaves a lot of “untouchable” areas. What if that person had unintentionally done that particular thing to anger you and it was really easy to fix? By not exploring these areas, you’ll feel like you’re stepping on egg shells all the time, afraid to say things for fear that they’ll be taken as a criticism or complaint.

In many ways, this is almost the same problem as being the recipient of the complaint. In Be A Good Manager By Letting People Learn And Grow, the manager’s criticism makes the employee feel afraid to voice his/her opinions and take initiative. However, this is ironically the same situation for the manager. You’re afraid to tell people to do certain things because you’re not sure if it’ll be taken as a criticism and kill their motivation.

It seems like one of those things that you’re bound to make a mistake on no matter what you do. Somewhere, sometime, you will offend someone by accident. I think it’s how you resolve these “accidents” that makes for the interesting parts. After all, you have to say things, and some things will offend some people. It seems unrealistic to expect to never offend anyone, as pretty much anything you say will be taken as a criticism, condemnation, or complaint by someone, somewhere.

Perhaps, the fine line is that of trust. The more trust, the more likely that things will not be taken as a complaint, condemnation, or criticism and be perceived as just a statement of the problem. This would mean that with people closer to you, you can be more open with your thoughts and problems, which seems to be consistent with the general human condition.

Gaining trust and finding out which areas are untouchable though, are difficult skills to master on their own.

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4 Responses to “Never Criticize, Condemn, or Complain”

  1. Jack on January 28th, 2009 12:12 am

    I think that the issue here is not whether or not you will be “offending” someone with your words, but what you are actually saying and how it is being “framed.” As long as you frame your statement in such a way that you are not directly criticizing someone, that’s the important part. You have no way of controlling how another individual will react to things that you say or do, so do not concern yourself with that. Basically, avoid putting the blame on the individual.

    For instance, I work as an art director. Say one of my colleagues gives me a design for a project, and I disapprove of it. I can say one of the following:

    1) “This is trash”/”You are a bad designer”
    2) I don’t think this layout fits with the mood and style we are trying to achieve because…blahblabla

    In option 1, I am directly criticizing the person and insulting their work, big NO-NO. This only frustrates and angers the individual and has zero benefit.

    In option two, I am not criticizing the individual, but rather a work that that individual has created. Framing it this way allows for the individual to objectively view their work, and distance themselves from personal feelings that they attach to it. By giving specific reasons why I don’t think the design works, I am showing that I respect them and allowing them to understand my perspective.

  2. Juan Sidberry on December 13th, 2009 12:48 pm

    Like and appreciate the article. You make some very good points and thank you for the references to other works and articles.

    I think Jack makes a very good validation of your point on “Offending” people. I agree with his statement in that one should address the behavior or the task and not the person. The person is never being criticized and the work that they do is not being condemned. What is being addressed is that the person and the tasks are addressing the problem or meeting the goals.

    Jack’s examples are very good and should be referenced when one comes to the question of: I am criticizing or condemning in this situation?

    I read that passage by Dale Carnegie in 1987 and have been practicing it ever sense. I do fault every once in a while, but I have managed to maintain it as a principle in my relationships. And that is what’s being ask: to practice the principle, not to master it flawlessly.

  3. Elena on September 1st, 2010 5:26 am

    My take is: never criticize people not smart enough to learn from criticism. I wish I was been criticized more by smart people in my life.

  4. Sarah on April 27th, 2012 1:41 am

    I think that you forgot 1 important thing not to do : it’s compare.
    People, please stop comparing yourself to others all the time it’s killing you!