How To Criticise People

John Rowan

Life is not always smooth, and we may have to confront
 someone at times – someone who is offending us, or 
irritating us, or making us feel bad in some way. In
 deciding how to do this in the best way, we are often 
unsure of how to do it. Let’s look at seven different types 
of communication we could use.


This is a very powerful mode of communication. It says – “I am superior to this 
discussion. I am making my judgements and observations privately, and there is no 
way in which you can influence me.” It reserves our position and saves us from 
making mistakes. But in fact it is always seen as making us distant, withdrawn, 
unfriendly and faintly menacing. The reason seems to be that it reminds people of
 God. As the 93rd Psalm says:

How great are thy works, 0 Lord!

Thy thoughts are very deep!

The dull man cannot know,

The stupid cannot understand.

Another version of this is to leave the room. This can often be a very powerful 
mode of communication. The basic problem is that no one knows what we think
 about the issue – they are supposed to guess and work it out for themselves. But this is 
made difficult. This is of course very akin to certain Skinnerian techniques of
 extinction (behaviour modification techniques), though it seems doubtful whether
 Skinner ever quite realised some of the more subtle ramifications of this method.


Here we put a mark on someone else by saying “You are a pain in the neck”. “You
 are intelligent.” “You are a hair-splitter”. “You are being very defensive, aren’t you?”
This again puts us into a superior position. We just happened to come along, and 
there was this fellow sitting there with a card hung round his neck – all we did was to
 read it out. There is this perfect objectivity about it. It is like a scientist describing a 
new bug. It may sometimes develop into a whole lecture about what is the case. At
 other times it can turn into exhorting, moralising or preaching. And at other times again it may turn into warning, admonishing or threatening. In these cases we are
 RIGHT, and the other person is WRONG. But labelling is always seen as a put-
down, ultimately. It puts the two parties into a superior/inferior relationship, even 
when it is ostensibly favourable (“What a good cook you are”), and so it always
 diminishes the person addressed, and takes away a little of his or her autonomy.
 When it is unfavourable, it arouses great defensiveness, and makes further
 communication very difficult. When it is favourable, it often comes across as
 patronising, and leaves the other person with no answer. So essentially it is not a
 mode of communication at all, since all real communication is two-way.

Hostile Questions

This is really very close to the previous approach. Here we ask the person 
questions, often using the word “Why?”, which take for granted some kind of label in
 the process. “Why are you so selfish?” “Why do you keep making these terrible 
mistakes?” “Why can’t you listen when I tell you these things?” “Why can’t you be
 more thoughtful?” “Do you realise what a mess you’ve made of this whole thing?” 
This covertly says that we have a number of pre-prepared boxes with all the possible
 answers on them, and we are only waiting for the signal as to which box to put the
 answer into. But all the boxes are uncomplimentary, so it doesn’t really much matter. 
It is a set-up. A variation on this is when we interpret, analyse or diagnose the other
 person. Here we don’t even wait for the person to answer a question – we just pop 
them straight into a box in any case. Again the result is resentment and defensiveness, 
and again communication is cut off rather than encouraged. Psychoanalysts 
sometimes wonder why there is always a deathly silence after they have made a strong 
interpretation; perhaps this is now a little easier to understand.


Here we admit that we are parties to the relationship, but put all the responsibility 
on to the other person. “You give me a pain in the neck.” “You’ve put me in a very
 difficult position.” “You make me laugh when you say that! This isn’t the first time 
you’ve done that to me.” Blame always tends to float downwards in organisations, and
 again these statements imply a superior/inferior relationship. They again bring
 resentment and defensiveness on the part of the recipient. Again, further
 communication is closed or blocked by this kind of accusation. Closely connected 
with this is sarcasm. Like the other versions of type four, this often feels like a very
 strong form of communication, because it allows emotion to come in, but it is no 
better. After being left alone for one hour – “You certainly know how to make 
someone feel wanted!” After seeing someone behave very rudely toward someone else
- “You do have terrific tact, don’t you?” After a child has wrecked the whole room -
”You certainly have pretty good control over that kid, don’t you?” This is a recipe for
 ending a dialogue, not for beginning one. But it is only dialogue and negotiation 
which can get us what we want without adverse side-effects.


This is seemingly very positive, but in fact it is still based on the top-down model.
 Here we give suggestions or offer solutions to the other person. “Couldn’t you be a 
bit kinder to Jenny?” “Why don’t you count to ten before you speak?” “If you’d only 
pay attention, you would learn a lot more.” Or it may take the form of reassuring, 
consoling or sympathising with the other person. “You’re obviously having trouble
 with that – let me do it for you.” “Don’t take on so – have a cup of tea.” “I had a
 problem just like that and I surmounted it!” These approaches can actually make the 
person feel worse, because they assume that the person is a kind of weak child in need 
of help, unable to cope on their own. Badly-run clinical group work is full of this kind 
of patronising pseudo-communication, where people seem to be helping, but in fact 
are putting the other person down. It all too easily turns into the kind of rescuing
 which has been analysed so acutely by the TA people in their “drama triangle” of
 Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer.


Here we tell the other person what to do. “Shut up!” “Now listen to me for a
 change!” “Stop doing this to me!” “Don’t keep asking me how I feel, and then not 
listening to the answer!” This again has a great potential for making the other person 
feel resentful and even less inclined to co-operate. The louder and more forceful it is,
 the more it tends to paralyse the other person. It is slightly better than the others,
 because it is at least clear and unambiguous, but it falls considerably short of being a
 good kind of communication. It almost always implies some kind of labelling, and this
 of course would take it right back to Type Two. Its main justifiable use is when there
 is an emergency, and something drastic has to be done urgently.

Real Communication

It always implies that the parties are on the same level. Real communication is
 only possible between equals. It may be spontaneous or it may be deeply considered,
 but it usually comes out as sounding spontaneous in any case. It can best be achieved 
by keeping up an awareness of our own emotions and bodily states. “When you say 
that, I must admit my stomach turns over.” “When you got to about the middle of
 the lecture, I fell asleep” “When I am with you I experience my own inability to
 dramatise things.” “My fantasy is that you feel very scared about that possibility.” All 
these are criticisms or potential put-downs, but they don’t have the same quality of
 automatically producing a defensive reaction. The other person can say – “That’s
 your problem!” The options are much more open. Both parties are quite explicitly
 involved, and on a more or less equal basis, so channels of communication are opened 
up, rather than closed down, as with the other types. The speaker has to be non-
defensive to express this kind of communication, and this helps the listener to be non-
defensive too.

It is surprising how often we adopt one of the less adequate forms of
 communication, but the penalty is to not get what we want. If we want to get what we 
want from the other person, without adverse side effects such as resentment or
 actually getting hit back, we have to use real communication. This can make us feel 
more vulnerable, but it is the strong kind of vulnerability which makes genuine
 human dialogue possible.

Note: This schema is loosely based on two earlier pieces of work: Harold S. Spear (1968) “Notes
 on Carl Rogers’ concept of congruence and his general law of interpersonal relationships” in
 AG Athos and RE Coffey (eds) Behaviour in organisations: A multidimensional view, Prentice-
Hall, Englewood Cliffs; and Gerard Egan (1976) “Confrontation” Group & Organisation 
Studies 1/2 223-243.