“Criticisms may not be agreeable, but it is necessary”, said Winston Churchill. A criticism in time can avoid greater evils and can sow the seed for an enriching change. However, criticism born of ignorance, envy or hatred can generate wounds that take a long time to heal.
Buddhist philosophy has not remained oblivious to the act of criticizing. Although it emphasizes the importance of developing a compassionate attitude and not judging the others, it also warns us that there are occasions when pleasant words do not help much and it is necessary to make positive criticisms that help people amend their mistakes or find their way again.
The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony book, an anthology of the Canon Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi, includes Buddha’s advice to monks. He warns us that “Our speech can be timely or inopportune, true or false, kind or hard, connected with good or harm, made with a mind of loving kindness or with internal hatred”, so it is important to be more aware of our words
In chapter IV, Buddha addresses the speech explaining when it is necessary to praise and when it is appropriate to criticize, also indicating how we can assertively correct a person. Then it mentions the five precepts that we must follow to make a positive criticism.
The 5 precepts of Buddha to criticize correctly
1. That criticism starts from the truth
A criticism makes no sense if it is done under a false premise. Words based on lies or assumptions have no value and often only serve to generate chaos and confusion. The positive criticism, on the contrary, must start from honesty. That means that before criticizing we must ask ourselves if we are being objective enough.
According to Buddhism, we come to the truth when we develop the right perspective, which involves getting rid of our value judgments, expectations and attachments. That implies that we must make sure that our criticism does not have a selfish motivation, that it does not start from our frustrated expectations or that it is not an attempt of manipulation through guilt.
2. Choose the right time
“Speak at the right time, do not choose an inopportune moment”, says a Buddhist quote from the Canon Pali. Criticisms, however positive and constructive, often trigger negative reactions as it can be seen as an attack to the ego. To mitigate its impact, we must be smart enough to choose the right moment.
If a person is angry or frustrated, it is likely that our criticism will have a negative effect simply because these emotions prevent him from thinking clearly. In the same way, if he’s going through a difficult time, this criticism can become an additional weight that is very difficult to manage. Therefore, for a critic to be developing, it must be said in time.
3. Criticize with kindness
Telling the truth does not mean making a sincericide by telling the first thing that goes through our mind without thinking about the repercussions it will have on the others. Words can hurt, even if they are true. That means that to make a positive criticism we must start from the deepest empathy, with sensitivity and tact.
The most difficult criticism, if done with gentleness, not only softens but is also more constructive. When we criticize with kindness and delicacy we break the emotional walls where criticism often bounces, creating fertile ground so that it can thrive and really lead to a developing change.
4. That criticism benefits the other
Positive criticism is one that builds and adds value. Negative criticism, on the contrary, only damages people and generates gaps that are difficult to fill. Therefore, it is important that before criticizing we think about how our words can benefit the other person, how they can help him be better or grow.
It also means that criticism must be accompanied by a possible solution. Noticing a problem or an error is important, but even more important is to provide a way out so that person does not get caught in the thoughts and attitudes that generated that situation.
5. Criticize from kind love
“Speak from a kindly love mentality, not harboring hatred […] We will not pronounce bad words, but we will respect and pity the well-being of that person, with a kind and loving mind, without internal hatred, without hostility and without ill will”, said Buddha.
Positive criticisms are those that arise from a mettā mentality, as it is known in Buddhism a kind, benevolent and active attitude towards the others. That mind has left anger and anguish behind to embrace a more unconditional love. If we have not achieved that inner peace, but we harbor grudges and frustrations, we should ask ourselves if we are the right person to criticize.
Bodhi, B. (2016) The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony. Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.