“Never praise, never rebuke,” I recently read in a book. Instead of telling people that they did a good job or are “so great at X,” we should merely thank them for their contributions. We should also refrain from admonishing them. “You didn’t deliver on this project” or “you suck at baseball” will do more damage than good, the authors claimed.
The idea is that both praise and criticism are judgements of other people, and whenever one judges another, the relationship becomes hierarchical. “Vertical,” in Adlerian psychology. Regardless of what our judgement is going to be, by judging in the first place, we elevate ourselves “above” the other person, and that’s not right.
Ideal relationships, according to Adler, are “horizontal.” People treat each other as “equal but different.” We know we’re not the same in terms of height, taste, or tennis skills, but we all possess the undeniable value inherent in each human life — and it is on that basis that we should engage with others.
Therefore, instead of praising or reprimanding those around us, we should merely thank them for the contributions they make to our lives and work, the book argues. We can express respect, joy, and gratitude, but we must not judge.
Now, what’s the problem with this idea? The theory is sound. The aspiration is noble. And the advice is highly practical. Unfortunately, practical is only half the battle. The other half is whether it is feasible — and in this case, the answer is “Probably not.”
We often demand practical advice. We want our boss to give us straightforward answers, and we don’t like podcasts where figureheads drone on in the abstract, never committing to a certain path they’d recommend. Practical advice has become somewhat glorified in recent years, and while it’s important that we instruct each other based on real-world needs, it is also important that the instructions actually fit into our real-world lives.
“I love this Youtube channel about making your own clothes! It’s so practical!” Yet, that same person may not have manufactured a single item of clothing because, according to the Youtuber, you also need this special tool and that hard-to-get item, and you must buy 17 different materials in order to make it all come together. It’s practical but not feasible, and unless you’re willing to make big sacrifices of time and money, you’ll never get the same result.
This is the dangerous allure of all the dazzling “look what I made” videos on TikTok: The people making these videos are often covert professionals more so than hobbyist amateurs, but the casual presentation of their work makes it look like anyone with a bucket of paint and a piece of string can create a masterpiece.
In the same vein, it’s easy for “never praise, never rebuke” to look like a great piece of advice, but it’s nearly impossible to follow on an everyday basis. Sure, if I could download this habit into my brain like they do in The Matrix, it would be highly useful, but — and the movie also made this abundantly clear — humans aren’t machines.
Every now and then, I’ll say “Good job” before I even realize it or fly off the handle after someone really drops the ball on something, and you know what? Unless you explain that whole theory of horizontal relationships to them in detail, concrete feedback is most likely good enough. It usually gets the job done in the moment, especially if immediate adjustments need to be made. That’s also practical and, better yet, it is entirely feasible.
Be careful when seeking advice. Unlike with humans, it is fine, even essential, to judge it, and if it’s only practical, not feasible, it is perfectly okay to give it a pass.