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criticism & confidence


Criticism & Confidence - an essay by Dan Evans



This essay aims to compliment other documents about my teaching methods, expanding upon the nature, causes and harm of criticism and why confidence is so important and needs to be nurtured. For those that don't know, I've been leading criticism-free workshops for twenty years with enormous success and to superb feedback

I'd like to cover the following topics:
•    types of criticism
•    why criticism is so harmful
•    the need for control
•    the importance of confidence
•    confidence and leadership
•    what happens when criticism is removed
•    criticism in our society


The last section will explain why, for some people, these concepts may seem counter-intuitive or even alien.  They have however been proven to be extremely effective on my workshops and hugely more successful than traditional approaches to teaching, using so-called 'constructive criticism'. 

Dan Evans teaching



types of criticism

The mildest form of criticism is perhaps 'damning with faint praise'.  For example "that was quite good".  Notice how the word 'quite' is often stressed.  Also notice how often "quite good" is followed by "but ..." and an even more negative statement.  Slightly stronger are statements like "that's wrong" or "that'll never work" are profoundly negative and damning. 

Worse still, "you must be joking" or "you're being ridiculous" not only put someone down but also might be an attempt to influence the opinions of others present - and so these can be intimidatory.  For example "he thinks his (stupid) idea is going to work - (let's all laugh at him) ha! ha! ha!".  Sadly, this is often passed off as 'friendly banter'.  Also in my experience, there's no such thing as 'constructive criticism', as I will explain later. 
Observations and suggestions may seem harmless too but, in my experience, they are not.  Observations are normally criticisms in disguise.  Suggestions at first glance, may seem helpful and that might just have been the original intent.  If unsolicited however, they can be taken as critical.  If someone has pushed themselves to achieve their very best and you offer suggestions to improve their performance, then you are saying that their achievements were not good enough.  You are likely to leave that person feeling deflated or angry with you or both.      

why criticism is so harmful

One definition of criticism might be: 'to find fault in others'.  Twenty year's experience of working with these issues however, has led me to see criticism in a more sinister light.  I now think it should be defined as follows: 'to find fault in others in order to hurt, harm or control them and/or to satisfy needs within ourselves'.  

As I explained in my essay 'Respect, the key to true community', twenty years ago one important premise of my workshops was that 'criticism invariably erodes confidence'.  Today that premise has evolved into 'criticism is totally unnecessary, invariably damaging and frequently wrong'. 

Criticism is unnecessary, as there are better ways to help and develop people.  It can be wrong because criticisers seeks to impose their own views, which may not be appropriate.  Like everyone, my work is criticised from time to time.  Frequently however, the people offering criticism don't understand the issues at hand and so their comments are unfounded.  Criticism is damaging for two reasons.  Firstly, it damages the confidence of the recipient.  Even robust people, sure of themselves and their standpoint, are likely to experience self-doubt when criticised.  Secondly, it damages the relationship between the two parties, as trust will have been eroded.

Several of my students over the years have told me that a criticism they were given once, long ago is 'played back' in their memory every day or even every hour of every day.  Many of my voice students believe they can't sing at the start of the class only to find that they sing really well and have nice voices.  Unfortunately, until they attended my class, some of these people have not sung a single note for ten, twenty, forty or even sixty years.  Moreover some of my students with lovely voices are afraid to sing solo and so deny others the beauty of their song.  These limiting beliefs and fears are widely disproportional to any flaws in their singing and are invariably caused by unsolicited criticism, often by people in authority or close to them. 

the need for control

On my workshops, I cultivate and manage criticism-free environments to develop confidence and nurture growth.  I call this process: 'the engine'.     

Dan's Engine chart
In everyday life however, I recognise the need for control.  Children need to be kept out of harm's way until they are old enough to manage dangers for themselves.  Likewise, employees should be empowered but there are occasions when new, inexperienced or wayward staff need to be controlled for the greater good of the organisation.

Necessarily, control needs to be directive, but it doesn't have to be critical.  Telling a child not to wander into a busy road or asking a member of staff to comply with company standards can be done in firm but non-critical ways.  For example: "I'd like you to undertake this task in this way" is not saying that they are wrong or stupid.  The challenge is to consider how the remark may be received and to be directive without being critical.  It can be a challenge as our instincts and upbringing may prompt us to behave critically.

No matter how well intentioned it may be, help is best given when it is solicited.  At most, if you see someone struggling with something that you know more about, then you can offer help - but be prepared to be refused.  On some occasions the person struggling may welcome your help and thank you for it.  On many other occasions however, it will be empowering for them to overcome obstacles on their own, even if the solution seems slow to come or a compromise to you.  If someone does accept your offer of help, this is not an invitation to give criticism or to impose your own style or preferences, but an opportunity to assist them to achieve their goals at their pace and in their own fashion.

the importance of confidence

Technical skills, knowledge, experience, training and research are not the only reasons people are successful in their work.  In my opinion, these altogether only represent 10%.  Communications skills represent 30% and even more importantly, confidence represents 60% of why we are successful at our work. 

confidence pie chart

Confidence is especially important in certain activities like sports, performing music, giving presentations, selling and leadership.   Two main aspects of confidence are self-efficacy and self-esteem.  Our self-efficacy is about our comfort in being able to undertake specific tasks and challenges.  Our self-esteem is more of a general sense that we can cope with our lives.  Both self-efficacy and self esteem can be damaged by criticism.  Self-efficacy will be damaged by criticisms of our work and self-esteem will be damaged by more personal criticisms of our personality and/or behaviour.  Over long periods of time, personal criticism can be significantly harming to someone, especially if they have low self-esteem.  

In a recent television interview, British comedienne Dawn French was asked about her strong sense of well-being and her very natural comfort with her identity.  She attributed this confidence to her upbringing, in particular her farther, who frequently praised her and her appearance, thus giving her life-long self-esteem.  

Confidence is not to be confused with arrogance, sometimes referred to as narcissism.  Arrogant people look down on others and think irrationally highly of themselves.  Paradoxically, arrogance may be an indication of a lack of self-esteem. 

confidence and leadership

Leadership and confidence are inextricably linked.  We won’t back projects pitched nervously, fumblingly or apologetically.  To quote Francisco Dao:  'without confidence there is no leadership’,  ‘leadership is about having the confidence to make decisions’ and ‘trying to teach leadership without first building confidence is like building a house on a  foundation of sand’. 

Moreover the leadership and culture of whole businesses can be enhanced by removing criticism or damaged by allowing criticism to rule.  In a non-critical culture respect is the natural result of strong performance, which is the natural result of strong leadership, for which confidence is needed.   Moreover, as my 'engine' shows,  confidence is developed through staff showing mutual respect.


non-critical culture chart


Sadly, the converse is true of a critical culture.   Poor performance naturally leads to criticism, which damages confidence and relationships and results in weak leadership and ultimately poor performance.

critical culture chart



what happens when criticism is removed

Frustration, anger and urges to retaliate are common causes of criticism.  To a point, these are understandable.  Criticism however can also be used to make us seem clever or superior and/or to impose our own views or perspectives.  When we damn with faint praise: "that was quite good" we put ourselves on a superior plane.

Importantly, criticism says more about the giver than the recipient.  This is a crucial point.  Regardless of the validity of the criticism -and remember that it is frequently wrong - the motive is to satisfy needs in the giver, not the receiver.  Once this important point is grasped and we realise that criticism is damaging our behaviour becomes more positive, tolerant and collaborative.

Without criticism, we see the world differently.  We look for the good in people and situations and try to make the most of them.  We realise that praise develops confidence in others and this in turn raises their performance, resulting in stronger, more productive and effective teams.  Moreover praising others reciprocates respect, which is the fabric of true community

The logical, robust reader might be forgiven for thinking that criticism is a normal part of life, that some people are over-sensitive to it and so may need to be treated more gently and that these sensitive people flourish in a criticism-free environment does not mean that it is suitable for everyone.  Indeed, I might have held this naive view myself, twenty years ago.  My work teaching music and management skills since however, has confirmed the opposite.  Everyone who embraces the philosophy of a criticism-free environment seems to benefit enormously.  In this safe space, people take risks and, with the right help and support, make big leaps of progress, more than one would reasonably think possible.  I call this 'tight-rope walking'.      

The results of working in a criticism-free environment are simply stunning.  I documented in my essay 'Respect, the key to true community' that my voice classes achieve a 99.75% success rate of students being able to sing in tune.  Many of these students were labelled as tone-deaf, were rejected by choirs, believed they couldn't sing and even had expert singing tutors give up on them.  About a third of my students are like this and have been failed by the traditional approaches to teaching music using so-called 'constructive criticism'.  Yet, with the right help, they can sing perfectly well and then derive enormous pleasure from doing so.  Given that the traditional approach achieves (at best) a 70% success rate against my demographic, then the statistical difference between my system and the traditional approach is an improvement of 124 times or 6,400%.  The superb feedback supports this.           

In the context of management coaching I have found that my 'engine' develops confidence, cultivates positivity and builds highly productive teams.  (Indeed, it is the best team-building model I've seen to date.)  These in turn develop capability, motivate everyone involved,  remove competition and achieve outstanding results.  Furthermore they reduce stress and enhance well being. 

criticism in our society

Sadly, in our society there seems to be both acceptance of criticism as a necessary evil, or even a good thing, as well as some understanding that it is harmful and wrong.   Traditional teaching methods often involve criticising students' efforts and competitions often involve criticisms of entrants' work.  There seems to be a common (mis)understanding that criticism is necessary for development.

By the same token, we somehow know that it is wrong.  We ask for permission to make 'observations' but we don't ask permission to give compliments.  The fact that we camouflage criticism using words like 'observations' and 'critiques' is an attempt to make a harmful criticism seem palatable.  The term 'critique' is commonly used today.  It sounds French and fashionable, like 'boutique', making it seem acceptable. 

Stalwarts of tradition will claim that 'constructive criticism' is acceptable and even helpful.  This phrase seems to be using the word 'constructive' as camouflage and I've so often heard the term used to defend our critical culture.   Whereas, I've yet to hear any 'constructive criticism' that was really helpful.  It is normally a phase that precedes the giver of criticism getting something off their chest.
Having taught music in the USA and UK, I've noticed a much more positive culture in America than we have in Britain.  However, even in the US, business is hampered by negativity.  To quote professor Amabile of Harvard Business School ‘Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial’.  Cynicism, negativity and criticism seem reassuringly realistic, showing again this flaw in our society.




I recognise the need for control but there is no value in criticism.  It can only be damaging.  It serves the need of the giver not the recipient.  The more we reduce criticism, the more we develop confidence and nurture performance.

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