Criticise them – But how to do so safely?

criticiseYes it can happen. No one likes their faults to be pointed out and some people with thin skins when you criticise them see this as a personal attack. They get shirty, defensive or bite your head off. You probably would think twice before taking the risk of saying what you really think to them. Yet keeping quiet means not doing anything about the problem.


“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” (Winston Churchill)

So what’s the best way to criticise someone?

Shirley needed to criticise her neighbour

Shirley was really getting fed up with her new next door neighbour who played his music loudly some nights after coming home from shift-work. Once, she had called round to ask him to turn the volume down, which was done, but the level of loudness would resume another night. It probably wasn’t bad enough to make a complaint to the local authority. The adjoining walls of their homes were not sound-proofed. She  had heard from someone that her neighbour could turn nasty if provoked. How could she deal with the problem which was upsetting her a lot?

Next time Shirley tackled the guy, she wasn’t sure she could trust herself not to shout and lose her temper. When you criticise it is important to keep the matter in proportion, neither overdoing things, nor being too timid. If she were to come over as arrogant, curt or annoyed, she probably wouldn’t be listened to properly. And were she to resort to insults and hostility the chances are the door would be slammed in her face.

How not to criticise

A Laurel and Hardy comedy comes to mind when the two friends engaged in a tit-for-tat war with their neighbour, each side doing things to damage the next door property, with the punishing actions mounting, until the ludicrous outcome was the destruction of both homes.

The film comically showed the pitfalls of an unkind attitude — using the opportunity to make the critic feel superior or perhaps want to provoke or vent a bit of anger. Shirley could soften her criticism by saying things like “I have made the same mistake myself…” It avoids showing any air of superiority.

Criticise showing respect

The common advice psychologists give is “Respect the individual, and focus the criticism on the behaviour that needs changing – on what people actually do or actually say.”

Good criticism generally comes with some degree of humility and respect for the  possibility of other equally valid points of view. In other words Shirley is advised to refrain from any criticism of the person but merely of the noise he makes. Giving respect means not assuming that he is being thoughtless, inconsiderate, or selfish.
Perhaps he is hard of hearing and doesn’t appreciate how others find loud noise annoying.

Once you start to jump to conclusions about someone’s character then you are liable to show this in how you talk to them revealing sarcasm, anger, hostility or condescension. People hear how you say things more than they hear what you say. You mainly communicate through the tone of voice and facial expressions.

Also choosing the right words still matter.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” (Zig Ziglar)

Criticise in a precise way

It is important to explain what it is that the other person is doing that is a problem for you and how you feel about it. Don’t say ‘You are causing me grief’ but say ‘I feel the noise is causing me grief.’

If the individual is respected with a bit of humour, and due credit is given to the possibility of their sympathy for your difficulty, it is vastly more likely that the criticism will be understood, and taken seriously.

To criticise can be less difficult

Shirley had the disadvantage of not knowing the person she wanted to criticize. It is easier to point out a fault if you have an ongoing friendly relationship with the person. You have a greater chance of counting on their sympathy or embarrassment. At least she could try to get into rapport with the neighbour before voicing her issue. Perhaps if she invited him into her own house when somebody else was also present when his music was on then her neighbour could more easily appreciate the nuisance he was causing.

When a relationship has already turned sour, then it may need a bit of patience, waiting before the right time and place arrive to make a fair criticism. It may take considerable effort to create the situation in which the criticism will be “heard”. On the other hand if the relationship between enemies is so bad the best thing may be to get a mediator for justice.

“Virtues which have to do with … moral wisdom … have various names, and they are called … integrity, kindliness, friendliness, modesty, honesty, helpfulness, courteousness; … not to mention many others…. In all of these justice and judgment prevail.” (Conjugial Love section 164 by Emanuel Swedenborg)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems