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Skip the Criticism Altogether. Give Feedback Instead.

Learn to minimize sting to increase the odds that your concerns will be heard.

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.

Here's a few technical points to keep in mind when you want to give feedback instead of criticism:

1. Criticism complains; feedback explains.

Explain how a phenomenon works.

Instead of "You were late for lunch again today!" explain the difficulty: "Restaurants fill up quickly for the noon hour, and won't give us a table until both of us are there."

2. Feedback can be softened with a when-you.

"When you came late to our noon lunch date there were already crowds lining up for tables at the restaurant we like so by the time we finished eating I was late returning to work."

3. Focus on sharing your own feelings and concerns.

In personal (as opposed to business) situations especially, keep the focus of your feedback on the impacts on you, what you feel and think.

I-statements, which can be coupled with a when-you, keep the subject yourself. The feedback then is about how you felt and your concerns rather than about the person whose behavior was problematic.

Example: "I felt anxious when you were late to our noon lunch date because I get reprimanded if I'm not back at work by one." Changing the order works equally well: "When you .... I felt disappointed."

4. Keep the tone friendly.

Omit any judgmental, critical or irritated tone. Stay explanatory. And grease the feedback with positivity.

"I so much enjoy talking with you those rare times that our schedules work for us to meet for lunch."

5. Focus on solutions, on would like to's, rather than dwelling on what went wrong.

Feedback also emphasizes how to do things better rather than dwelling on what's wrong. Looking for what you yourself can do differently to improve the situation is especially helpful.

"Next time we meet for lunch I'd be glad to call ahead for a reservation. I'll order for both of us if I get there ahead of you so we can still have time to eat. And I'd be glad to meet at 11:45 instead of noon."

Can you tell what's criticism and what's feedback?

Here’s some examples. What do you notice about how criticism and feedback differ?

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 further guidelines can 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 further "Feedback Instead of Criticism" guidelines:

For a parent of an older student or new graduate:

1. Ask open-ended questions starting with What or How .

"How are you feeling about launching into the work world?"

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 a 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.

"Relaxing your grip a bit on the racket is likely to let your whole stroke flow in a more relaxed, and therefore more powerful, way."

For a spouse or other love partner:

  1. Talk about yourself, not about the other. Explain your thoughts, feelings and concerns.
  2. Focus on the information about the problem.
  3. Skip the don't likes. Focus on what you agree with and would like.
  4. Generalizations about the person invite defensiveness. Stick to specifics.
  5. Avoid “makes me feel.” Switch to “I feel….”
  6. 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 to touch your hand by wanting to get in bed, I feel overwhelmed. I freeze up and feel 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...").

Remember too that, 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 with whom you interact 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….

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD


Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.

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