Criticism: Does it Really Help?

Handling your desire to criticize another person

Criticism: censure, condemnation, disapproval, or reproach.

When you criticize someone, you are condemning or disapproving of them. Naturally, they are less than happy about that as a general rule, and will try to defend themselves, a perfectly understandable reaction. Criticism implies that you are in a superior position to the person being criticized. People have a tendency to resent anything
that makes them feel as if they are losing freedom. This is known as reactance and seems to be built into all human beings. Criticism implies that by suggesting that you are the authority over that other person. That causes them to react emotionally and negatively. So criticism is a very dangerous activity in relationships, since it leads to defensiveness, which leads to more criticism on your part. It is like you are saying, “They just aren’t getting it, I’ll say it some more.” The more you criticize, the more they defend or attack you, and the situation deteriorates.

If you doubt this, review in your own mind when other people criticized you. How did it work? Were you glad or perhaps defensive and angry? Review your times of criticizing others. Where they thrilled to get your input, or perhaps angry and defensive? What about when you criticize yourself? Do you feel empowered and enthusiastic,
or defective and depressed?

Steps toward productive criticism:

(1) Try to get over it by yourself. See if you can overcome your own tendency to criticize. After all, your first job in a relationship is to enjoy the other person. If you are thinking critical thoughts, you cannot enjoy that person. You can enjoy that person more if you can find something positive about the problem situation.

Sit down by yourself with a sheet of paper and do this exercise:

(A) Recognize the problem is not the other person, it is your own critical thoughts.

(B) Describe the situation that you object to. This may be difficult because you might notice as you try to describe the situation you also throw in your own judgments. Try to keep it a description of behaviors, things you can see and hear.

(C) Describe your own judgement about the situation. Again, it is your judgement, not the situation itself that can be changed.

(D) Now try to discover something positive about the problem. Look for some way you might be benefiting from the very problem you object to. Look for a more compassionate or understanding way of understanding the situation.

EXAMPLE: Client complains “My wife is cool and distant and irritable with me.”

(A) It’s my problem, with my own thinking: My wife is who she is, and my irritation
is really my own criticism of her. Maybe she is only cool and distant at times,
not always, and my own thinking makes me miss those times.

(B) The situation: She looks away when I talk to her, and seldom hugs or touches

(C) My current thoughts: I do so much for her, I am loyal to her, but she won’t
show warmth to me.

(D) How is this actually a positive? Why not look at it just as the way she was
raised, with more reserve and distance. And it can help me to learn to be less dependent
on how people treat me; I can learn to be happy and cheerful without having the
crutch of someone else supporting me emotionally. I can treat her with warmth whether
she is warm back or not. I can notice times she is more warm.

“What if I can’t find any way to be calm about this?”

(2) If you can’t get over it by yourself: Here is an idea that may help you: We
really have no right to criticize each other without permission. When you criticize
someone, you are acting as if you are superior to them. All people have a right
to dignity and to criticize someone without their permission robs them of dignity.

(A) Ask permission to criticize: “I have a problem I need your help with. It involves
something you are doing. May I talk to you about it?” If that person won’t give
you permission, you have to do a great deal of fence-mending or strengthening of
the relationship so it will be more natural for the person to accept your complaint.

You should also ask the person to hear you out completely before he or she says
anything about your complaint. Ask him to give you time to completely explain your

(B) State the criticism in “video description” language: What would you see on a
videotape showing the problem happening. Stick to what you can see and hear; don’t
talk about your judgement or opinions about the problem, just the problem itself.

(C) Tell what that videotape would look like if the problem were gone. What would
you see instead? What would be present? How would that help you?

(D) Release the problem: “I realize I cannot force you to do this, it is something
that I would like but it may not be something you are willing to do.”

(E) Listen: Find out what the person thinks about your request. Do not interrupt,
especially if it sounds like the person didn’t understand. Just listen, and keep
listening until the other person is through talking. As this discussion proceeds,
put your energy into taking turns talking. Ask the other person not to interrupt
you, and do not interrupt the other person. Be patient and listen carefully until
the other person is through talking. Polite fights are more productive than rude
ones in which each interrupts the other. Even if the other person interrupts you,
you are not justified in interrupting him or her. Manners are most important here,
and the other person not having good manners doesn’t mean you should join in rudeness.
Some people find that actually timing the conversation helps. That is, each person
talks for a specific amount of time

(usually seven minutes) while the other just listens; then the other person talks
while the first person listens.

Allowing the other person dignity is vital, especially when the other person has
bad habits of communication and doesn’t seem to “deserve” good treatment.

“But what if the other person never gets through talking, they just go on and on?”

The best response to that is to spend hours, if necessary, just listening, and not
trying to change that person. Their continuing to talk means something, but we don’t
know what it means until we listen for a long time. So practice good listening skills.
You might consider that this is an opportunity to learn to be a much better listener
than you ordinarily would be. You might ask the person why they continue to repeat
themselves, what they are expecting?

But basically, a person who continues on and on is a person who has probably never
really been heard, and if you can hear him, you can heal him.

In summary: Criticism is a very dangerous activity, and should be avoided if possible;
if you have to criticize, make sure you are doing it in a relationship of respect
and warmth, make sure you follow a pattern of respecting the other person and allowing
that other person his dignity. Follow this rule: Always ask permission to criticize;
if you don’t have permission, you shouldn’t go ahead with the criticism.

Copyright © by Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D. E-mail: LJohnson@