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Is Criticism Ever Constructive?

There are steps you can follow that will allow you to steer clear of criticism and develop a positive complaint style.

Step 1. De-escalate. When a conflict erupts your first response is to be angry, critical, righteous and retaliatory. You are convinced that you are right and they are wrong. But maybe you are blind to your part in it. It’s a good idea to cool down and think about what made you mad. Anger is informative and complex, it can be about five or six different things. Anger let’s you know that something is up, some internal land mine has been triggered. Take a beat and consider what made you angry. Is this an old wound? What do you want, need and value moving forward? What were they thinking? When you feel calmer and have a better idea about what pissed you off, then set up a time to talk or wait for an opportune moment.

Step 2. Acknowledgment. Conflict and anger break the emotional connection. The best method for reconnection is to acknowledge what your partner is saying or feeling. Providing feedback that gives the sense that you understand what they are experiencing is connecting. Do not repeat word for word, but summarize the most important elements in a way that lets them know you understand. When couples are having trouble, it is often because they are not listening to each other and are too busy defending. Attack and defend is a lethal style that loops around and around until there is only stalemate. Acknowledgement breaks the negative cycle.

Step 3. Define the Problem. Once each person feels understood and has made an effort to voice their concerns try to make a statement about what you think the problem is. Something like: “When you ignore me, I turn up the volume and then you get angry with me for getting angry. I think the problem is that we are spending too much time arguing about what happened instead of what we want.” Once you agree on the problem you can start to talk about solutions. This is where your complaints can be heard. “In the future you don’t have to fix it, you just have to let me know what you need and that you hear me.”

Step 4. What Can Each of Us Do in the Future to Make it Better? Each person at this point can make a statement about what they will do next time. “I promise to listen so you won’t have to yell at me to be heard.” By placing your concerns in a future context it feels positive rather than blaming and critical. In 30 years of seeing couples, I have yet to see two people agree on what happened in the past. What works is to consider what you might do next time. “Next time, could you let me know when you are going to be late?”

Step 5. Take Action. Making an effort to do those things you have agreed to do demonstrates commitment and concern for the needs and feelings of your partner. You don’t have to be perfect but when you do make a real effort it creates connection and love.

This road map is just that, a way to resolve problems and communicate in a way that creates love and connection. Like all road maps you need to know when you are off track and then get back on the road. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling break connections and compassion, understanding, respect and empathy create them. Complaints allow your partner into your inner world, criticism shuts them out. Love is an active process and sharing your complaints positively creates a more loving connection. This is the way to be happy together.

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Read more: Love, Relationships, Self-Help, Spirit, ,

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Dr. Bill Cloke

Dr. Bill Cloke has worked with individuals and couples for 30 years. He received a masterís degree in education from the University of Southern California and holds a PhD in psychology from California Graduate Institute. A frequent talk-radio and TV psychologist, he is also a contributor to and other popular websites and has lectured at UCLA. Bill Cloke lives with his wife in Los Angeles. To learn more about Bill Cloke, and for more resources on creating healthy, happy relationships, visit


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10:22AM PDT on Apr 22, 2013


11:29AM PDT on Sep 1, 2012

nice way of making distinction between criticism and complaint

5:05PM PDT on Apr 13, 2012

"Otherwise, they are up and out the door, never to be seen again."

So, you're saying you'd lose you source of livelihood? Best to be real careful.

9:53PM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

Absolute cardinal rule in any business environment is to praise publicly, give constructive critisism in private and have solid evidence supporting the reason for the critique and why its not acceptable, and what will happen it the behavior doesn't change, be firm, be clear, no judgements or attitudes involved.

1:28AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

Some people enjoy raising their voices and behave as if the person with the loudest voice is always right. Cultures certainly differ......

1:29PM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

excellent advice, my partner and i have been doing this subconsciencously thoughout our relationships and as a result our fights are actually disagreements and we get over them fast

1:03PM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

From my experience, Criticism, and I won’t mention names, (in case the rude and disrespectful person/s is reading this) I don’t like certain people to even give me constructive criticism because he/she did it in a way to make me look small, stupid, ignorant, and they got glory out of putting someone down in front of other people, to make me look and feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. . I could have knocked the shit out of those people because it truly pisses me off when people do this to gain attention, to make themselves look smarter, or bigger. Now, the person who is excellent at this crap is getting hit with the same treatment from others. Payback is a b*tch. Criticism, it truly depends how you present it when correcting someone. My advice, don’t do it in front of others. Pull that person to the side and correct them if you must. You don’t win brownie points by being an ass to your co-workers.

8:27AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

I agree with others in the comments section that the semantics of criticism and complaining is a little problematic in this post. I would also say that the marriage relationship is quite different from relations with coworkers, also. I think we learn a lot of our coping behaviors from our parents. I remember my parents would do that stonewalling and I hated to see them do it, so I swore I wouldn't. But, there's always challenges in any relationship and I think the biggest one in mine is that of both parties wanting to work on them.

5:57AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

Excellent article.

5:14AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

Instructive criticism where you do it and show them rather than explain it, is quicker when at work.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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