Are You Criticizing, Evaluating Or Judging?

One of my mentors puts it this way: a negative situation is already sufficiently negative without having you add negativity to it.
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Last week's article on criticizing for success generated quite a few comments and a host of email messages on the subject. Several asked for additional thoughts on the difference between cynicism, critical observation and judgment.

Ancillita put it this way:

Reading your article Are You Trying To Criticize For Success? - I felt compelled to write you my opinion ... constructively.

The words criticism and judgment are highly charged in our culture. In part we have lost the ability to not only be discerning but unhappily, the ability to express what is being discerned primarily out of fear of "offending". We live in a society increasingly concerned with political correctness and avoiding "offense" rather than seeing through into the heart of the issue, that is "intellectualism".

When you use the term criticism, are you really referring to passing judgment? I suspect you are. In my opinion, we have lost the ability to discern between the two. . . criticism is an essential aspect of critical thinking... critical thinking is sorely missing in our society. Knowing when and how to give "constructive" feedback is a skill that very people are taught. Combined with a society in an era that cares less about character, integrity and authenticity this confusion you reinforce leads to increased dumbing down, and dismissal of *any* expression of criticality as "intellectualism" or merely, "offensive".

Perhaps you could write another article extolling the virtue of critical thinking and the use of intelligence to discern to encourage people to have the courage to be more discerning and to speak out when they see things that are wrong - not to stand in judgment, not to be violent, but to bring light into situations. We need more critical discernment, not less.

in service

Well, thank you Ancillita! A great observation and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, as do I to all the others who took the time to write and comment.

And, yes, that appreciation does extend to my critics. It took me a while to get past my sensitivity to criticism. As much as I care about people, I am often too eager to please in order to avoid the sting of their critical comments.

Last week, I looked up criticism quotes on the 'net and found these two lovely specimens from Winston Churchill:

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.

Indeed, I do see myself as someone who has stood up for something - human compassion, caring and capability are chief amongst them.

And, I do appreciate the irritating experience of the criticism that comes my way. Whenever I find myself irritated, I am reminded of two things: sandpaper makes rough surfaces smooth (thanks for smoothing my edges) and if I find myself in reaction, then some part of the criticism must be true (thank you Bucky Fuller).

Here are a couple of distinctions that I have found useful:

  • Judgment vs. evaluation: if you look at a couple of different light sources, say a candle and a 100 watt light bulb, or the sun and the light bulb, you may be able to notice the relative difference in the amount of light being emitted. An evaluation would simply state that one is brighter than the other. A judgment would condemn one as too bright, or the other as not bright enough.
  • Critical thinking vs. criticizing: both require the ability to notice and to observe. However, critical thinking is more akin to evaluation while criticizing is more akin to judgment in that those who criticize often add an element of negativity to the observation.
  • One of my mentors puts it this way: a negative situation is already sufficiently negative without having you add negativity to it.

    Spelling tests put us in a particular bind. If you spell 44 out of 50 words correctly, how many did you miss? No trick question here -6 is the obvious and correct answer. When you got your paper back, what did it say on top? For many of us, it read minus 6 (-6) and usually in red ink.

    Did you miss six? Absolutely. Is 44 out of 50 pretty good? Depends on your point of view. 44 out of 50 translates to 88 percent which is somewhere between a "B," "B+," and even an "A-" depending on where you went to school. Surely, nobody got an "F" for 44 out of 50. And yet, for most of us, the focus was on what you missed.

    If you had enough of the -6 kind of feedback growing up, two things might be true: you may want to avoid any more "criticism" having already had enough, and, you may be reluctant to pass any more on, knowing how it feels when "good enough never is."

    Of course, another obvious challenge in all this is the notion that absent the "critical" feedback, it's going to be pretty hard to improve. How practical or effective would it be for an English paper to come back where the teacher circled all the words you spelled correctly?

    One part of the challenge is developing the ability to point out what is missing, inaccurate or ineffective, without adding even more negativity to it via judgment. The corollary is how to provide feedback that affirms forward movement without becoming soppy in the process.

    A good friend of mine, Alex, has a delightful way of prefacing some kinds of feedback that is aimed toward improvement. In a very simplified example, he might come to me and ask this kind of simple question: "if my zipper were down, would you tell me?"

    What a lovely way of saying, "your zipper is down." Of course, most of us would say, "of course." The simple question is enough to raise our awareness such that we don't even have to say "of course."

    I do not yet know a perfect answer to the question of how to offer insightful criticism in a way that is accurate, positive and immediately useful. Perhaps you do?

    Care to offer your thoughts?

    I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


    If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

    Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

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