How to Critique Sensitively
Updated: Aug 21, 2022
The more sensitive a topic is, the more carefully we must communicate. Sensitivity is crucial when we make critiques or observations about certain people, groups, cultures, religions, and political parties.
The question is: how can we express our opinions with sensitivity, humility, and respect?
Here is my advice:
Acknowledge your limited perspective.
Use softening words that are not too extreme.
Admit you might be wrong.
Ask the other person for feedback.
What do I mean by using softening words? You can use words like "might," "seems," "feels like," "appears to me," and so on.
In order to keep from generalizing, try avoiding words like "always" and "never"and instead use words like "sometimes" and "rarely."
Here are some example phrases we can learn from in order to add an element of respect, humility, honesty, and openness to your observations and critiques…
Red = Insensitive phrase Black = Tips/advice Green = Recommended way to say it
Americans are loud.
Acknowledge that this is your personal experience based on your cultural values.
In my experience, Americans are loud.
Compared to Japanese culture, Americans are loud.
That politician is mean.
Tip: Acknowledge that this is your personal opinion based on your values.
In my opinion, that politician is mean.
Or, if you want to be more diplomatic…
In my opinion, that politician sometimes acts in a mean way.
That doctor is stupid.
Acknowledge your limited perspective.
Say “not very smart” instead of “stupid,” which is harsh and generalized.
According to what I’ve seen, that doctor is not very smart.
Or, if you want to be more diplomatic...
In my opinion, that doctor is not the smartest of doctors.
Foreigners are rude on the train.
Acknowledge your limited personal experience.
Say “some” to acknowledge that it isn’t "all foreigners."
Say "sometimes"to acknowledge that it isn't "all the time."
Mention what exactly they do that makes you think in this way.
Express how it feels from a Japanese perspective.
Say “it doesn’t feel very polite” instead of “they are rude” because it might be rude in Japan, but not in other countries.
Ask if your perspective is reasonable or biased based on your culture and experience.
I’ve observed that some foreigners sometimes talk on the phone when they’re on the train. From a Japanese perspective, it doesn’t feel very polite. What do you think?
Nick is lazy.
Acknowledge that this is your opinion. Say “a bit lazy” in order not to sound too harsh.
Ask for the other person’s perspective.
It seems to me that Nick is a bit lazy. What do you think?
Suzuki san did a bad job.
Say “didn’t meet my expectations” instead of “did a bad job” because it recognizes that you believe he is capable of doing a better job or that your expectations were different.
Acknowledge that you might have expectations that are too high and unreasonable.
Suzuki san didn't meet my expectations. But maybe my expectations are too high.
The government always wastes money.
Acknowledge that you don’t know if you are 100% correct.
Say “seems” to acknowledge that it is your personal perspective.
Avoid saying “always” since that is a broad generalization.
I don’t know if this is true, but it seems that the government is wasting money.
This is a bad idea.
Say “I feel” instead of “is” to acknowledge that it is your personal opinion.
Say “might” to recognize that you are not positive but wondering honestly.
Say “pose some difficulties” instead of “is a bad idea” for a gentler critique.
I feel that this idea might pose some difficulties.
Lisa is always angry.
You could acknowledge the possibility of being wrong.
Say “seems” instead of “is.”
Say “a lot of the time” instead of “always,” which is very generalized.
I may be wrong, but Lisa seems to be angry a lot of the time.
Acknowledge your limited perspective. Use softening words that are not too extreme. Don't generalize. Admit you might be wrong. Ask the other person for feedback.
And... bonus tip: your tone of voice and body language are especially important when you speak about sensitive issues. Be sure to keep a gentle tone that conveys kindness and curiosity. Reflect on what type of body language and facial expressions communicate most sensitively.
I wish you the best of luck as you try to communicate with sensitivity. With more sensitive communication and thoughtfulness, we can make the world a better place!
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