Compliments are good. Compliments are healthy. Telling someone what they’re doing right can be a huge help, whether in art or otherwise. However, sometimes carefully applied criticism can also be beneficial to helping someone get better. The problem is that for a lot of people, especially artists, we have a tendency to feel very personally toward our work. We do put a piece of ourselves into it. And so any sort of criticism can feel like a personal affront—or attack—even if it’s not meant as such, and so the message is lost.
To that end, here are a few thoughts on giving and receiving constructive crits.
If you’re giving them: First, look at your intent honestly. Are you coming from a place where you genuinely want the other person to get better, or are you just trying to tear them down? It’s okay if it’s some of both—just make sure you speak from the first intent, and let the second remain silent. We can be envious or jealous of someone, or even offended, but on another level also really want to see them get better. Sort through your feelings as best as you can.
Consider how your message may best be received by the other person. Some people accept criticisms more gracefully than others, but that doesn’t make more thin-skinned people wrong or weak or bad. It’s not just on them to take it gracefully, but also on us to be tactful. Nobody wants to feel attacked, and even the most tough-skinned person can still react badly to a perceived onslaught.
It’s a bit cliche, but wrap your criticisms in compliments. Start with a compliment—a genuine one, not something half-hearted—then make your criticism, and then follow up with another genuine compliment.
Finally, when in doubt, err on the side of privacy. Some people can handle constructive crits in front of others, but some are horribly embarrassed by even the smallest suggestion. If you actually want them to do better, give these more easily-discomforted people a private message or email, or in person pull them aside after all’s said and done, and talk to them one on one. People generally don’t do so well if they feel cornered, and they’re less likely to listen.
If at any point you find yourself thinking “Well, THEY should be more thick-skinned” or “THEY just don’t know how to take criticism”, turn your attention back to yourself. Are you being sensitive to where they are now? Are you more interested in finding what will be the most effective way for them to receive the message, rather than what you think should be the best way based on your own preferences?
Now, for those receiving constructive criticisms: Yes, there are people out there who just want to see you do better. There are also a lot of people doing destructive criticism in the name of “helping”, when in fact it’s their own egos getting in the way. It can be hard to tell who’s who, and even harder to trust your judgement (never mind the critics!)
But listen anyway. Do your best. Even destructive critics, those who just want to tear you down, can still have surprisingly good observations under the vitriol. It doesn’t justify their aggression, but you can still learn from them regardless.
If you feel hurt or attacked, give yourself space. Take a break from the computer for a while, or in person, leave the room for a few minutes. If you keep worrying over and chewing on what they said, it’s just going to make the barb sink deeper and deeper.
If you do find that there’s some truth to the criticisms, that you could do something better, do your best to explore that without taking it personally. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or a crappy artist. Everyone needs to keep working on getting better. I know I do, and I’ve been at this for over a decade!
Look at constructive criticisms as tools to get better and be more awesome. Someone just gave you a road map to better art! Make use of these tools, and come back with something that really shines.
At the same time, also accept that there are people who will never be satisfied, and you shouldn’t make your art to please others. Do art for yourself first and foremost, and remember that you’re ultimately the one who gets to decide whether a criticism is useful or not, regardless of whether it was framed constructively or not.
Finally, to all: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, in the words of Plato (or, as modern philosopher Bill says, “be excellent to each other”). Remember that we’re each painting, stitching, writing, and sculpting our own paths. We all have things going on behind the screens and away from the meetups and classrooms and workplaces. Sometimes they chew at the backs of our minds and that affects what is said from the fronts of our mouths. When in doubt, breathe. Give yourself, and everyone else, some space. Very little that happens today will be important tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. You only get so much time and energy in your life. You get to decide how to spend it. What are you investing in?
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