Criticize Less, Praise More

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Practice these three ways to praise instead of criticize — and see your relationships transformed.

Have you ever heard of a medical condition called dysgeusia? Up until a few years ago, I hadn’t.

Dysgeusia is when someone’s sense of taste is impaired or distorted. I first learned about it when my husband, Ted, came down with this unpalatable ailment. Everything he ate — that is, except Mickey D’s breakfast burritos, for some inexplicable reason — had a “rancid” or “rusty metal” flavor profile.

Close your eyes and imagine taking a bite of what’s normally your favorite food. Maybe it’s a cheeseburger. Or it could be Thai Panang curry — one of my top picks. Or perhaps you’re a dessert lover and you can’t get enough cheesecake. As your favorite flavors hit your taste buds, you’re expecting all the goodness, but instead you get a disgusting gush of musty dirt.

Yuck, right?

Well, for Ted, it was months of one foul bite after another. I remember wondering if he’d ever enjoy eating again.

Most of us don’t know what it’s like to live with this appetite-killing condition. But we do know what it’s like to be fed something that’s equally hard to swallow — and that’s criticism.

Food for thought

Criticism can taste a bit rancid, right? Even delivered under the best of circumstances by the people who love us the most, it’s painful to ingest critical words that point out our faults or judge us in some manner. It’s interesting, though, that no matter how much we dislike being fed criticism, the sour taste of it doesn’t stop us from dishing it out to others.

Ouch.

For some reason, criticism comes easily for us. It’s not a struggle to notice other people’s failures or bad habits or annoying quirks and want to correct them. And this propensity to focus on and point out the negative is even more true when it comes to those we spend a lot of time with. It might be a roommate, a sibling, a coworker, a best friend or a parent. Maybe it’s even a boyfriend or a girlfriend.

But what would happen if instead of feeding our need to correct or criticize or even be right, we determined to feed the other person’s hunger for praise and affirmation?

You may already know this, but we all need more praise than criticism. While, yes, constructive, love-filled feedback can help us grow in godliness and character, and there will always be moments that require us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), negative critique isn’t what we — or the people we surround ourselves with — need the most. In fact, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, we all need at least five words of praise for every word of criticism.

So, how can we start feeding those around us more praise than criticism? Here are a few practical ways to start.

1. Adopt a grace-filled perspective.

Lately, I’ve been revisiting the mix-tape-worthy songs of my teen years, and, as you’ve already surmised by my use of “mix tape,” dating myself big time in the process. As I heard one of my old favorites, the lyrics reminded me of how God’s grace — His undeserved kindness toward us — brings us freedom (John 8:36). His grace unburdens our hearts and allows us to live with levity.

The idea of grace resulting in freedom isn’t limited to how God interacts with us. It also affects our relationships with others.

When we practice grace toward those around us — especially when they’re getting on our last nerve — we also extend freedom. We unburden their hearts as we release them from our expectations and personal preferences. Because let’s face it, a lot of what we criticize others for isn’t necessarily sinful, or, as sin is defined, “missing God’s mark.” Instead, our criticism is often based on how others have missed our mark.

So, if we want to start feeding others genuine praise, it begins by changing our mindset and adopting a grace-filled perspective toward those around us.

Before I give you an example of what this might look like, take a moment to contemplate the word adopt. I’ve used it intentionally here. When we adopt something, it’s meant to be permanent. God didn’t temporarily select us as His children. He’s not just chaperoning us for a few years. No, His adoption of us is unchanging. Adopting a grace-filled perspective is meant to be a permanent and ongoing lifestyle decision for us.

One practical way to start is to focus on progress rather than perfection. Let’s say that you chatted with your roommate or family member a few weeks ago about his or her habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink. Every. Single. Morning. The dishes aren’t even being rinsed out and stacked nicely until they can be washed. There are bowls with crusted oatmeal in them, and mugs stained with coffee.

Today, when you get home from a long day of work or class, you discover dirty breakfast dishes in the sink for the third time this week. It’s easy to feel frustrated, right? After all, you’ve talked about this issue.

Frustration is natural … that is, if you’re focusing on how your roommate’s failed. But what if you focused on his or her success instead?

Stick with me.

When you first talked about the unwashed dishes, it was happening every day. So, three days is progress. It’s an improvement. Rather than criticizing an imperfect dishwashing record, try expressing appreciation to your roommate for the progress. The simple truth is the praise — not criticism — is what encourages us to want to continually improve.

Adopting a grace-filled perspective can help establish a habit of praising others. When you focus on the good, that’s what you see — and it slowly changes your perspective of the person.

2. Check your vocabulary and the tone of your praise.

“That’s not a bad idea!” Ted responded lightheartedly. I chuckled and replied, “Well, I guess it’s not a good one either, huh?”

Sometimes, when it comes to praise, I tease Ted over his word choice. Rather than affirming me with, “That’s a great idea!” he’s occasionally known to jokingly reassure me that my idea isn’t bad and he’s “heard worse.” Or, instead of telling me, “You’re right!” he likes to say with a wink, “You’re not wrong.” I know his words are said in jest, and so they don’t hurt. But coming from someone else, I imagine they could fall flat.

It’s not enough to simply recognize progress and acknowledge it. We also need to be intentional about the vocabulary and the tone we choose as we give praise. The words we say and how we say them make a difference in whether the person we’re praising actually feels affirmed.

So how can you check your tone in praising someone whose negative habits are much easier to see than their positive traits?

Let’s go back to the roommate and dirty dish scenario. Say you’ve decided to focus on progress rather than perfection, and you’re about to affirm your roommate for the slow but steady change. You could phrase your praise in a couple of different ways.

You could say something like: “I noticed that you aren’t leaving your dirty dishes in the sink every morning anymore. I did still find them unwashed a couple of times this week, but at least I’m not coming home to find it as much.”

How do you think your roommate would feel? Praised for the progress, or shamed for a lack of perfection?

I’m going to guess he or she would feel your disappointment and disapproval more than your affirmation. The word choice — and most likely the tone that would accompany it — focuses on how your roommate is still missing your mark.

But what if you shared your praise like this: “I appreciate you washing your dishes and putting them away. I noticed you’ve been doing that more regularly and I so appreciate your thoughtfulness and effort.”

Do you notice the word choice difference between this one and the first one? While the other one was negative, this takes a positive and affirming approach. It acknowledges what’s been done without focusing on any shortcoming. It communicates that you recognize and appreciate the changes, even if they are slow in coming.

For most of us — this hypothetical roommate included — we’re more likely to continue making an effort if we feel like what we’re already doing is being seen and applauded, rather than our shortcomings denounced.

3. Keep your praise other-focused.

I often equate praise with compliments. Maybe you do too. And here’s the thing: You and I aren’t wrong — as Ted might say. If you looked up the word compliment on Dictionary.com, you’d find this definition: an expression of praise, commendation, or admiration. Pretty straight forward, right? We have a trusted source telling us flat out: Praise is expressed through compliments.

Pause here, though, and think about or even jot down the last few compliments you gave someone. If they’re anything like the ones I’ve shared, they may be pretty generic. Things like: I love your shirt! I thought you did a great job! This pasta is fantastic! Not only are these non-specific, but they tend to be more about me — the compliment giver — and what I appreciate, then about the person I’m praising.

Which leaves me wondering if compliments — at least in the way we normally give them — are enough. Do they really cut it? Or is praise best expressed instead through specific encouragement?

Compliments make someone feel good momentarily, while encouragement goes beyond that. I love how author Jennifer Rothschild explains it. She says, “When you encourage someone, you acknowledge something God already put within them. You celebrate their strengths and point out their potential.”

For example, if you’re having dinner at your parents’ house and your dad makes his neighborhood-famous burgers, you could say, “I love this burger! It’s so good!” Notice how you’re expressing what pleases you. Sure, you’re complimenting your dad too — kind of. But are you saying anything that really encourages or builds him up?

But what if you said this: “Dad, no one else makes a burger as well as you do! You know how to season it perfectly and cook it just the right length of time. When it comes to grilling, you truly have a gift!” Here you’ve gone the extra mile with your words and pointed out your dad’s strengths and giftings. Your praise has become more about him and less about you.

You can do it!

It’s no secret that dishing out praise often requires more thought and effort than criticism does. Adopting a grace-filled attitude, evaluating our vocabulary and tone, and keeping our praise others-focused takes work. But it’s good work because I guarantee it will strengthen and improve your relationships.

When you start feeding those around you praise, it’ll be like you’re giving them a bite of their favorite food — and they are tasting it in all its goodness. No dysgeusia for them.

So, what are you waiting for? Go praise someone!

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, Ted’s dysgeusia eventually went away. His love for McDonald’s breakfast burritos didn’t. I suppose — depending on who you ask — that’s not a bad thing.

 Copyright 2020 Ashleigh Slater. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Ashleigh Slater

Ashleigh Slater is the author of the books “Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life is Hard” and “Team Us: The Unifying Power of Grace, Commitment, and Cooperation in Marriage.” With over twenty years of writing experience and a master’s degree in communication, she loves to combine the power of a good story with practical application to encourage and inspire readers. Learn more at AshleighSlater.com or follow Ashleigh on Facebook. Ashleigh lives in Atlanta with her husband, Ted, and four daughters.

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