Supportive scepticism in practice



This post is co-authored by Jess Whittlestone and Michelle Hutchinson


In a previous post, Jess talked about how our scepticism as a community might be threatening our ability to be supportive of one another. In this post, Jess and I would like to explore some concrete ways in which we can all be more supportively sceptical.

Supportive scepticism requires a conscious effort

First, let’s just highlight that for most of us, it’s incredibly difficult to take criticism well - and that’s natural. In his best-selling book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie goes so far as to advise that you should never criticise anyone. Criticism puts people on the defensive, he claims, so they’ll rarely take it on board or learn from it - most likely, it will just lower their opinion of you. But most of us care about more than simply winning friends and influencing people - we want to try and figure out true answers to difficult questions.

This suggests that we face a tough challenge if we want to both give critical feedback and remain motivated and caring towards each other. Although we’re a community of people who value feedback and scepticism more than average, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re all human, and all likely to find critical feedback difficult. It’s not just a matter of “not being mean” - we’re all going to need to make a conscious and deliberate effort to think about how the things we say might come across and affect others. This isn’t just a problem we can brush off - it needs a lot of thought and effort if everyone is going to feel positive and supported.

Why are you giving feedback?

Before giving someone a piece of feedback, you might want to think about a couple of questions: How are you feeling? Why are you giving this feedback, and why now? What is the best possible outcome?

This post has a nice breakdown of the various different reasons we might give critical feedback:

  • To help someone improve
  • To see a change we would like
  • To further the discussion
  • To hurt someone
  • To vent frustrations
  • To boost our ego

Hopefully the latter three don’t occur too much in this community, but it’s worth being aware that sometimes we might say something critical for bad reasons. So it may be helpful to check whether the reason you’re commenting is one of the first three. If it isn’t, it’s probably best to refrain from saying anything.

One way to check that you’re not motivated by the latter reasons could be to consider how you’re feeling as you comment - whether you feel angry or hurt, for example. As well as knowing that you’re motivated by one of the first three reasons, it’s often useful to know which, because it means you can focus on framing your criticism in the best way to achieve that goal.

Consider context

Some situations are more appropriate for critical feedback than others. It’s important to consider the content of the post, who the poster is, who they are addressing and where they are posting it, for example.

Suppose someone posts a ‘feel good’ article about some way in which the world is getting better on their own facebook wall. They may well find it demotivating to have the article criticised, and the benefit of criticism in this situation is also probably quite minimal. This seems quite different to a case in which someone posts an idea they had in a group, asking people what they think of it - where critical feedback is much more appropriate.

Timing can also be important: is the feedback about a project which the person is about to embark on, such that they can take your feedback into account? This seems an ideal time to provide feedback. On the other hand, giving someone feedback when they’ve already completed a project and can’t act on it risks just making them feel bad.

If you’re in an ongoing conversation, it might be useful to take note of how the person is responding to your comments. If they appear to be at all upset or defensive, it is likely to be better to step back from criticising them. Another piece of advice Carnegie has is taking care to avoid arguments. He points out that they often simply cement each side’s views, and leave both parties feeling worse about each other. If a discussion seems to be taking that turn, it might be better simply to listen to the other side, and be grateful for their input, rather than continuing to put forward your view. If you find that too difficult, then the best move is probably to bow out entirely.

The importance of positive feedback

Whether you’re giving feedback on an idea, a blog post or a whole project, the person you’re talking to has likely put in effort and good work towards a valuable goal. Highlighting what you think they’ve done well, what is valuable and what you admire in what they have done is likely to make them feel more motivated and more likely to take improvements you suggest on board. Likewise, people tend to feel motivated by acknowledgement of and gratitude for their hard work. We’re so lucky to be part of a community where there are so many nice people working so hard to help others, which thankfully makes it easy to find positive things to say under most circumstances (though unfortunately it’s also really easy to forget to look for them!).

The popular management handbook ‘The One Minute Manager’ highlights the importance of using praise to encourage people, not just highlighting flaws in people’s work. It contains a favourite sentiment of Michelle’s: “Here we put the accent on the positive. We catch people doing something right.” It’s so much easier to produce work and to share your thoughts when you feel they’ll be appreciated and useful than if you expect only negative reactions to them.

It might be particularly good to start and end your comment by telling the person what you like and admire about their post. This is particularly the case if you think the overall idea is a good one, though you think there are particular refinements that could be made. That way the person has an overall positive feeling toward your comment, which will hopefully leave them feeling enthused to carry out the specific suggestion you had.

An underlying theme here is to cultivate an attitude of appreciation for others. Being grateful for the hard work people put in and respectful of the good work they are doing, whether that’s in writing a blog post or carrying out a project, allows us to discuss with them ways in which they might be able to do even better without putting them on the defensive. Since it’s well established that being grateful makes you happier, this should benefit you, too!

Highlighting areas of agreement

Highlighting areas of agreement between you and the person you’re addressing could also work well to improve a discussion. Adam Grant writes in Give and Take about the fact that ‘rare commonalities’ can bring people together: you naturally feel close to someone who has something in common with you, and the more so the more rare the thing you have in common is.

Highlighting the assumptions you share with someone you’re talking to could make you feel more like you’re engaging in a collaborative search for truth rather than arguing. Similarly, if you’re suggesting some improvement, frankly acknowledging that it’s something you could also be doing better can help you connect, and also prevent you from coming across as patronising - thereby again cultivating a feeling of shared pursuit for knowledge.

Focusing on actions rather than people

Feedback about character traits, or general tendencies that people have, can often feel like personal attacks. For that reason, it can be better when suggesting improvements to focus on particular actions, rather than on people’s dispositions. For example, it might be more constructive to say ‘claim X in this argument seems overconfident’ rather than ‘you seem overconfident’. While the latter feels like a criticism of you as a person, the former is more like a suggestion that you rephrase a particular claim you made.

One complication of this might be when criticising projects people feel extremely invested in. When we invest a lot of time and energy in a project, we often end up investing a large part of ourselves in them too. This means an attack on that project can end up feeling like an attack on your identity. It’s worth bearing this in mind when we give feedback on a specific project we know someone is somewhat invested in. In this cases, we probably need to make even more effort to give positive encouragement as well as constructive feedback, and to be extra conscious of the language and tone we use.

Being specific and constructive

The more specific and constructive a piece of advice is, the easier it is to act on, and the easier it is to feel positive about. In an ideal world, we would each have the time and motivation to look into every piece of feedback we got, and work out how we could act on it. In practice, frequently we don’t. Making a comment actionable could ensure it gets acted on rather than forgotten about.

Framing is also important - framing a comment as a way of making something even better than it already is, is likely to empower the person to want to improve their post. On the other hand, saying that a particular feature is bad runs the risk of creating an ugh field for that person around that area.

It might also be helpful to think about what the other person’s goals are, in order that you can frame your comments to align with those goals. That can help prevent you from talking past each other, and is extra helpful to them because it makes clear to them how they might be able to better achieve their goals.

Hedging and warmth

Using language that conveys warmth, support and humility may is easier said than done, but can make a huge difference. It’s difficult to know how other people will take what you write. A few things that might help:

  • Using ‘adding strength words’ (like ‘definitely’, ‘absolutely’, ‘extremely’) when agreeing with someone or giving positive comments, but not when criticising. People often take criticism strongly to heart. For that reason, you might, for example, want to say something like ‘this doesn’t seem quite true’ rather than ‘this is totally untrue’, since the former conveys your message while dealing less of an emotional punch.

  • Using exclamation marks. I was once with someone who texted two people to say he was going to be late to see them. One replied ‘Fine’ and the other ‘Fine!’. The sense we both got was that the former of these might be rather irritated by the lateness, but the latter wasn’t - which even at the time seemed pretty ridiculous!

  • Hedge: make clear that what you are saying is simply your opinion on the matter. Err on the side of saying ‘it might be that...’, ‘my intuition is that...’ rather than ‘this is wrong’. Online, simply stating something can seem aggressive when that was in no way the intent.

  • Being vulnerable: If a commenter takes a dominant tone, the person receiving the feedback is likely to feel put-down and defensive. They might react better to a tone which made clear that you have similar difficulties to theirs. For example, you might want to frame your suggestion as something that has worked for you, when you faced similar difficulties. Or, you might want to frame it as something the person may have already thought about: rather than saying ‘you should have done x rather than y’, you might ask ‘I was wondering why you decided on x rather than y?’.

Remember, it’s a person you’re talking to

When commenting on blog posts or having conversations with online strangers, it seems rather easy to forget that there’s a real person sat at a computer receiving your feedback. That person, like the rest of us, struggles to stay motivated and happy. Like the rest of us, they don’t have the time or skill to do everything perfectly. Remembering that could help us to remain friendly, constructive and positive in our feedback, even when we are short on time and irritated by the imperfections in a post.

We thought it might be helpful to provide what seems to us like a great example of supportive scepticism. The following is a quoted email:

“Some feedback attached. It sounds like things are going very well, apart from [feature eggplant]. Congratulations! One thing I'd encourage you to do with these reports is, in the very first section, list something like:

A. Top 3 achievements over last 6 months (this is for qualitative stuff beyond members increases) (I'm thinking just like 3 bullet points with a sentence or two)

B. Biggest problem you have right now

This would give us an opportunity to zero in on things you might need advice on. Anyway, glad it's going well! Thanks for your hard work.”

This acknowledges and is grateful for the work put in. The person makes clear that they are happy with the overall progress, and that they are enthusiastic about that (exclamation marks!). This made it really motivating to work on the changes suggested. Acknowledging that feature eggplant was less than ideal indicates that the overall view was genuine rather being fakely positive. The suggestion in the body of this email (as with the attached feedback) is very specific and actionable, making it easy to implement, and it explains the benefit of the suggestion. The whole inspires a spirit optimism and collaboration.

Where to go from here?

It might be useful, going forward, for us to communicate to each other a bit about how we experience feedback. Someone might find it useful to hear that a you found a particular piece of feedback they gave you upsetting or stressful. Even better might be to convey to someone when a piece of feedback they gave you was really helpful to you. You might also like to follow up on feedback you’ve given others, by asking them whether they found it helpful, and how it could have been more so. Hopefully we can work together to be a really supportive (as well as sceptical!) community.

Further reading:


  • How to Win Friends and Influence People

  • The One Minute Manager

  • Give and Take