Three Simple Rules for Criticizing a Difficult Person

These three rules for voicing your criticisms are game changers.

Posted Mar 01, 2020

Here are three rules to remember when you are about to criticize another person. As with all things worth doing, they are easier said than done—and each requires practice.

1. When you have a specific complaint, aim for accuracy

Anyone who is criticized inaccurately may hear only the exaggerations and inaccuracies and become unable to consider the valid point being made. Don’t overstate your point. Avoid globalizing words like “always” and “never.” If your friend canceled a dinner date at the last moment three times during the last month, don’t exaggerate the number.

People on the receiving end of criticism shut down on the spot if they catch an error, or believe that they are being held responsible for more than their fair share of the problem. I recall any number of stupid fights with my husband where I flatly refused to apologize because he was blaming me for 75 percent of the problem and I was convinced I was only, um, maybe 49 percent to blame.

2. Say it in fewer words

Over‐talking on your part will lead to under‐listening from the other person  People take in very little information when they don’t want to hear what you’re saying. If you go on too long, you’re actually protecting the person you want to confront because they will shut down and vacate the emotional premises. They won’t have the space to sit with what you've said and to consider the valid point you may be making. Less is more. When people feel they can’t get through, they often lengthen their arguments or raise their voices. This does not help—and usually hurts. And we may not recognize that the sheer number of sentences may be the culprit.

3. Make authentic “I” statements that express your beliefs and feelings without judging or attacking the other person

This is especially important if you are dealing with a defensive person, a high‐twitch subject, or a conversation in the workplace. An “I” statement starts with “I think…” I feel…” “I fear…” “I want…” Practice making these kinds of statements. And remember that a true “I” statement:

  • has a light touch
  • is nonjudgmental and non‐blaming
  • does not imply that the other person is responsible for your feelings or reactions
  • is only about you—not about the person you're criticizing

Every “you” statement (“You’re being controlling!”) can be turned into an “I” statement. (“I need to make my own decision here”). However, changing the grammatical structure of your sentences is only part of the challenge. You also need to get the edge out of your voice. An intense, reactive tone will “undo” even the most carefully constructed “I”‐statement” and may come across as blaming. Hold off until you can state your “I” position calmly. We may think we’re talking in “I” language when we stick “I think” or “I feel” in front of a sentence. This doesn’t do the trick, because true “I” language must meet the four criteria in the previous rule.

Sometimes it’s easy to detect a pseudo “I” statement (“I think you have a narcissistic personality disorder”) that judges or diagnoses the other person. In many cases, however, the difference between a true “I” statement and a pseudo “I” statement can be subtle. For example, Alice, a  colleague of mine tells this story of her productive shift into “I” language. In her words: 

My husband Ken and I were recently driving home from a party. Our kids were asleep in the back seat. It was raining fairly heavily and I felt Ken was driving too fast, given the weather.

“You’re speeding,” I said.

“I’m going under the speed limit,” he responded.

“You’re driving recklessly for this weather—and with your kids in the backseat,” I exclaimed.

This made Ken really angry: “You’re accusing me of endangering our children? I’ve never been in an accident and I’m going under the speed limit.”

I shifted gears: “What I really mean is just that I’m uncomfortable driving at this speed, rightly or wrongly. Would you please slow down, even if I’m overreacting?

“Of course,” Ken said, and slowed down without further argument.

In switching from accusations to an “I” statement, Alice gave Ken the space to slow down without feeling he was admitting to being a reckless father and driver. Alice would be the first to admit he’s neither. Make sure your “I” statement is not really a “you” statement dressed up in “I” statement clothing.

Before you jump in to criticize that other person, always keep these three rules in mind: Aim for accuracy. Say it in fewer words. Make authentic "I" statements.