Critique is not easy

When people communicate they exchange facts, ideas and opinions. When they hear something which is not a sure fact like "At present, Earth orbits the Sun" they will either agree or disagree. As Paul Graham suggests this is a natural behavior. But disagreeing itself is somewhat simple: nothing remains after the conversation except for changed or not unchanged mind of participants.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Opposition"][/caption]

When people hear idea or proposal it is another beast. Something is going to remain after the talk is finished and that is a decision whether to proceed with presented idea. And that decision, be it positive or negative, is going to affect everyone involved in a conversation. As Paul noticed

Many who respond to something disagree with it. That's to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there's less to say.

Only very bad ideas will not ignite discussion. If the idea is worth at least something the conversation will start. The conversation will start with disagreement and critique and will revolve around the problem idea tries to address and the idea itself.

The worst form of critique which often can be a "discussion killer" is when the reply is "This is not going to work" and nothing more. There can be several cases why one would say that and actual meaning of that response can range:

  • from "Hey man! You are so stupid to propose this. Your idea is not even worth discussing."
  • to "Dude, I had thought this idea in and out and you really do not want to implement it" and "The problem you are trying to solve isn't really a problem. Let's move on to the next item."

No matter what the actual meaning is expressing it with "This is not going to work" is wrong. You must uncover reasoning for "not going to work". Such unsound responses kill all the constructive outputs that can arise as a result of conversation on the topic. Such responses create forces which oppose to development of better outcomes for the concern raised.

Good response would be something that will help arrive at conclusion that will be both acceptable and accepted by all the parties engaged in the conversation. Something that will prompt for further discussion is already good enough, e.g. "I do not clearly see the benefit of implementing this. Can you please explain in more detail?".

When discussion starts it is important to distinguish two things about the proposed idea:

  • problem the proposal tries to address
  • the idea itself

First of all there should be an agreement on why dealing with the problem is or is not important. With readiness to attack the problem you can move on to define a solution to that starting with proposed idea. Once the problem is revealed a solution should be found. The solution might be completely different from what is proposed now, but there should be one. And only constructive dialog that gradually improves currently proposed idea can deliver that.

Jim McCarthy calls this a "better idea" approach. To quote Jim:

An accountable "No" is respected, but it's got to be accountable.

You can say "No", but no, you can't go away without a better idea. Because if you don't have a better idea, then that's the best available idea and you always act on the best available idea. You can always change it tomorrow, or next week if better ideas come around. But, by definition, if you don't have a better idea, you have to vote "Yes". So when you stop the show you are expected to carry the next vote, which happens immediately. And this makes people say "No" much less.

Mind how you respond to ideas of your fellows and be accountable for what you say. Let ideas emerge and be implemented.