Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Skip the Criticism Altogether. Give Feedback Instead.

For a happy workplace and home, convey your concerns without a stinger.

criticism, feedback, complaining
The notion of constructive criticism or complaints is bogus. Children dislike criticism, as do colleagues, spouses, students and just about anyone else. Criticism stings.  Yet honesty is essential between any two people who are going to have an on-going connection.  Ability to say what's on your mind, and to hear what's on others' minds, is key to communication in a relationship in order to sustain teamwork in an office and solid connections with loved ones.

What is it about criticism that makes it so off-putting?

Criticism and complaints convey a stance of what author Eric Berne used to call “I’m OK; You’re not OK.” No one wants to feel Not OK. So most people experience an impulse to bat away information that comes with a Not OK toxic tag.

Because of the toxic You're Not OK stinger, most folks feel about receiving complaints and criticism pretty much how they feel about going to the dentist or washing their cuts and wounds. They'll receive them if they have to, and hopefully resist the impulse to defend against the message enough to take in the useful information.  

Still, there's a better way to share information about mistakes others are making that works far better. Issue feedback.

Feedback gives information from an objective observer stance. Someone who is good at giving feedback skips the complaining and goes straight to the explaining. Feedback mainly explains the impacts on you, what you feel or think "when you ...."  Feedback also emphasizes how to do things better rather than dwelling on what's wrong.  

Can you tell what's criticism and what's feedback? Here’s some examples. How do they differ for you?

Example #1, from a parent talking to a new graduate:

Criticism: Have you tried to find work yet at….?  Are you going to look for opportunities over the internet?  Did you follow up on that lead from my friend Bob?  Why didn't you check with ....?

Feedback:   I sure don't envy you having to start out in the work world when the economy is so sluggish.  What's the latest on job-hunting?  


Example #2,  from a tennis coach talking with a player:

Criticism: You were standing straight up without any kneebend. You can’t get power that way. Don’t lock your knees like that! You'll never get power without a better kneebend.

Feedback: If your legs stay straight, your serve will have limited power. Bending your knees as you toss the ball up will enable you to spring up and attack the ball.…..That’s it….More knee bend….More still….That’s it!


Example #3, from a husband:

Criticism: You always cook asparagus. How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t like them!

Feedback: I just am not an asparagus eater. I think my Mom used to force me to eat them. Now I just have to look at them and I feel sick. I do love broccoli though, and most vegetables in fact. I’ve come to agree with you that eating vegetables is important for staying healthy.  


Example #4, from a wife:

Criticism:  You’re too pushy about sex. All you want to do is bed, bed, bed. You make me feel scared to be affectionate. 

Feedback: I understand that you want more frequent sexual time with me. At the same time, if I show a bit of affection, like by reaching out to hold your hand, I feel like running away when you respond by wanting to head straight to the bedroom.


What rules would you derive from these examples of criticism versus feedback?

Most people know not to give harsh criticism.  We're dealing here with the subtle ways one can inadvertently come across critical unless you understand the nuances that distinguish between criticism and feedback.

Here’s my rules "Feedback Instead of Criticism" Guidelines:

For the parent of the older student or new graduate:

     1. Ask open-ended questions starting with What or How .  Yes/no questions that start with words like Did you...?, Are you...? Have you...? convey that you are checking up on someone rather than that you are interested in their experience

     2. After asking a first question, talk over the answer you receive before continuing on to a next question. Otherwise you risk sounding like you are grilling the person you are questioning, and grilling implies a critical stance.

For the coach:

  1. Talk about the phenomenon, not the person. Explain, don’t complain.
  2. Say what works, what you would like. If you have described what doesn’t work or what you don’t want, be sure to end with what does work, what you would like.

For the husband:

  1. Talk about yourself, not about the other. Explain your thoughts, feelings and concerns.
  2. Focus some on the information about the problem.  Mostly though skip the don't likes. Focus on what you agree with and would like. 

For the wife:

  1. Generalizations about the person invite defensiveness. Stick to specifics. 
  2. Delete “makes me feel.” Switch to “I feel….”
  3. If you want to mention what the other person does or did that triggered a negative response, use a when-you.  

E.g., “When you respond to my reaching out for your hand by wanting to get in bed, I feel overwhelmed. I freeze up and get mad at you when your movement toward sex is so much faster than mine."

The when you can come at the beginning or at the end of the sentence. In either case, be sure that the subject of the sentence is I.

Skip the criticism altogether, and even the feedback, by switching from criticism to requests.

A request often begins with an I-statement, especially an "I would like to ..." (note: NOT "I would like you to...").  It may offer a "because."  Most importantly though as the word "request" suggests, a request includes a question.  

The best questions are open-ended questions (not yes-no questons) beginning with How or What.

1. The parent: I'd love to try to help you. How would you feel about talking over the job situation with me?

2. The coach: Bending your knees as the ball bounces gives a player more spring and power.  How low can you dip your knees to be sure you have your knees as well as your racket go from low to high?

3. The husband: I would love to have more different veggies over the course of the week, especially since asparagus are my un-favorites.  How would you feel about varying our veggie options?

4. The wife:  I would love to have more cuddling and other skin-to-skin time with you.  I feel so much more affectionate, and sexual, if between sexual connecting we do a lot of hugs, hand-holding, arm-around-my should.  What's your thoughts on that?

How does a zero criticism relationship with all you interact with at home and at work sound to you?  

Most people feel much happier when they feel safe from criticism from work colleagues, adult loved ones, and even their kids. Those folks all will feel similarly secure and comfortable with you if you practice these rules.  

In sum, a feedback-only policy that puts an end to criticism can enable lots of folks, you included, to feel happily ever after….


Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a graduate of Harvard with a doctorate from NYU, specializes in helping couples build strong positive relationships. Her books include From Conflict to Resolution for therapists, and for couples, The Power of Two. In addition to her clinical practice and her PT blog, Dr. Heitler's current project is an interactive website that teaches the skills for marriage success. 

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.


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