Everybody wants to be an expert, but very few can actually engage with one without some desire to punch them in the face. 

Experts are confident, which translates as arrogance, they have a keen eye for detail, which translates as argumentative-ness, and they can analyse minutely at great length, which makes them exhausting. But what does expert behavior have to do with taking advice and criticism? Well, advisors and critics are always either experts or pretend-experts, which means they embody the same nerve-racking qualities.

Humans don’t normally take kindly to perceived arrogance, argumentative-ness and detail picking. It takes regular exposure and looking beyond the surface to stop feeling hostile towards those qualities. For example, due to sustained exposure, long-time academics not only tolerate, but actually enjoy those qualities. In fact, the longer they witness those qualities in a discussion, the more stimulated they feel. 

In the end, it is worth the effort because advice/criticism often contains key insights into life and numerous practical benefits as well. 

Some tips for the effort are as follows:

Expect to feel “annoyed”

You can’t fight nature. You can only brace for it. You know how you’re going to feel when that cauldron of scheming moralism and intellectualism unleashes. So prepare yourself. Expect nature to rouse those punching instincts, but don’t act on them. 

Your nostrils may flare and some other parts may clench. Your eye-ridge may furrow and your thoughts may lock up in defence. Just mouth the words. See the person genuinely trying their best to explain. Then,  help them out, as they speak, by extracting the theme, meaning and message

Listen to understand, not to reply or preserve dignity

When faced with an expert or pretend-expert, we try to outcompete them in morals or intellect, or at least not look bad or stupid by comparison. This often means thinking quickly about competent replies to the expert’s comments. In this race for fitting replies, we forget about comprehension. Thus, at the end of the discussion, there’s only feeling good or bad about morality and intelligence. There is no learning. 

But learning is where the benefits lie. Therefore, learning should come first. Alongside the learning, if you also happen to come up with a witty reply, then that’s a bonus. But don’t be down if the wit doesn’t follow. Due to its comedic nature, wit doesn’t normally coincide with serious learning. Conversely, if the jokes and prompts come before the learning, then you’re probably still listening to reply/preserve dignity, and not to understand. 

Expect some hypocrisy, manipulation and inconsistency

Consider the following dialogue:

Farah: Life will have its ups and downs. It doesn’t help to hold on to hurt and guard against ups when you’ve gone through downs.

Zeba: How well do you take downs?

Farah: I might guard against hope for a day, but I eventually acquire perspective. 

Zeba: Is that what happened when you relapsed most recently? 

Farah: Maybe it wasn’t just a day. But no more than a week. Plus, that was an exception, not the norm. 

Zeba: Maybe this is my exception. 

Farah: If you don’t study, you won’t get your grade. 

Zeba: It’s a place-holder course while I recover. 

Farah: Yes, but a bad grade would look bad on your resume. 

Zeba: It’s just to hold my enrolment status. It won’t count towards my grade.

Farah: That’s no pressure then, which is exactly why you should use this as a learning opportunity. The course trains a very in-demand skill. 

In this dialogue, Farah is trying to give advice/criticism. Her point is that Zeba should control her emotions and think constructively. While making that point, she is caught being a hypocrite. She even tries to manipulate Zeba using more than one angle to make her point. But the important thing here is that she is trying to explain something to Zeba, and her point about controlling emotions and thinking constructively stands throughout the dialogue. 

When someone offers advice or criticism, they often look like they mean to trick you or look better than you. This is because people are not good at handling weakened arguments spontaneously. So, they wind up looking inelegant in trying to recover the point from a weakened argument. 

In the end, more often than not, the advice/criticism itself remains valid, even if the approach is somehow hypocritical, manipulative or inconsistent. Unless a person has a reputation for being a “gossip-monger” or “fight-starter,” there are probably no ill intentions behind the tricks of their arguments. 

Don’t allow advice and criticism to be mean

For example, when someone is advising or criticising a drug addict, they may speak to the addict’s resolve in the following ways:

“You have to start somewhere. You can start small, at first. But somewhere.” This is not mean. 

“It’s always tomorrow with you. But will tomorrow ever come?” This is mean, but okay if you’re particularly frustrated. 

“You’re just incapable of the slightest bit of resolve aren’t you? You can’t even go one night without that drug! One night!” This is just plain vicious. 

Since different people have different sensitivities, one can use their discretion. If the advice/criticism leads to a hateful response or a bitter break down, then it’s too harsh, and an apology is in order. Sometimes, however, the break down is cathartic. This kind of breakdown is good. 

Expect sufficient opportunity to participate and respond

We’ve all been there. Listening to that person who goes on and on until the Earth has turned into Venus and Mars has turned into the Earth. If at any point during the speech, there were valid points, then those are either lost or garbled. Without opportunities in between to register information and respond to it, it doesn’t matter how many good points are made. No learning will come of it.  

If you are on the receiving end of an endless barrage of advice/criticism, then you may follow Buddha’s example and politely say “Will you stfu for a second and let me respond?”


In this post, we addressed an important aspect of good mental health — learning to take advice/criticism. We hope you find the information given useful in accepting guidance from others. Thank you for reading.