A few weeks ago, I came across Maria Popova’s blog post on criticism that challenged me to look again at how I argue. It is probably a gross understatement to describe me as competitive. I enjoy discussion and debate, but I love winning! As I read the quote from Arthur Martine in the blog instructing that, “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery,” I realized how often I pursued winning over learning or truth. Intrigued, I read on to find her discussion of philosopher Daniel Dennett’s synthesis of Anatol Rapoport into four rules for criticizing with kindness. As we consider ways of cultivating community, these rules offer a means of turning diverse views into opportunities for growth and learning instead of arenas for conflict and competition.
The first rule is to restate the other person’s view in such a way that they might respond, “Exactly! I wish I had said it that well.” Accepting this invitation requires the discipline and commitment to listen to understand rather than my usual habit of listening in order to respond. It also requires me to synthesize rather than dissect and to follow a logical path that may be different but no less valid than my own.
The second rule is to affirm the points of agreement between my own view and the view of my interlocutor. As I consider this rule, I begin to recognize my own tendency to argue against or attack the illustration or metaphor in a discussion without ever acknowledging the fact that I agree with the concept that is being discussed. I recognize my tendency, without this rule, to enter futile arguments about whether a quarter is flat or round.
The third rule is to mention anything that I have learned from the other person. In my competitive mode, I am unable to admit that I do not know something. To intentionally seek to describe what I have learned takes me out of this narrow focus and into a place of curiosity and collaboration.
The final rule is to not offer rebuttal or criticism until the first three are completed. When I have allowed the first three rules to change my focus from winning to seeking and learning, my criticism becomes constructive rather than destructive and I cultivate relationship and community rather than adversity and division.