Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

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Providing Negative Criticism: The Newest Guidelines

spigetti 1Readers of this blog well know that I often discuss immature and mature ways to provide negative criticism.  Originally, I presented a post titled PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY.  There, in addition to providing an outline of what I believed was a good starting point to think about this topic, I asked readers for suggestions on how the outline could be improved.  Many readers were not at all shy.  While this was going on, I continued my own reading, and from time to time, I shared what I had learned.  And now, just this week on the internet, I came upon an article that provided a new set of guidelines.  I kind of like them, and therefore, decided to see what kind of reaction they might lead to.  But first let’s quickly review what we already covered.


Below you will find preliminary descriptions of how people at five developmental levels of maturity provide negative criticism, that is, criticism that points out what we don’t like about someone’s actions, beliefs, or appearance.  Level one is the most immature and uses observations of babies as its starting point.  Each successive level is more mature:

  1. This level requires displaying one or more of the following:
  • Cries without stating what the crying is about
  • Physically attacks the person being criticized
  • Damages property

Although these three descriptors may not sound like providing criticism, in some situations we can see that it is the very beginning of the development of this skill.  Let’s say Jill takes baby Bob’s crayon away believing he is done with it.  Bob begins to cry and takes a swipe at Jill.  She manages, by moving away, to avoid Bob’s swipe. Bob now looks even angrier and crumbles up a piece of paper and flings it on the floor.  An observer to this may conclude that Bob, in a sense, is criticizing Jill for taking the crayon.         


2.  This level requires displaying one or both of the following:

  • The criticizer does not explain what the offending behavior is, but instead expresses displeasure with glares, insults, shouting, silence, or threats that do not involve bodily harm. (For example, someone might be making too much noise and the criticizer might turn to the noise maker and glare, or cry out, “Jerk!”)
  • Threatens bodily harm regardless of what else is said.



3.  The criticizer clearly states the criticism with enough detail so the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance, but couples it with glares, insults, shouts, or threats that are not about bodily harm.         

4.   The criticizer states the criticism without bodily attacks, damaging property, glares, insults, threats, or shouts, and with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance.  If the person receiving the criticism becomes defensive or angry, the criticizer empathizes without returning glares, insults, threats, or shouts.


5.  When the criticizer provides criticism, he or she does so in a manner very similar to a level four response, but beforehand, the criticizer considers the person who is the target of the criticism and the situation that he or she is in.  As a result of such considerations, the criticizer may decide to alter the criticism.


After proposing the five levels of maturity, several additional ideas came my way. One person suggested:

listeningHey there. One thing that potentially could be even better than a level 5 way to provide criticism would be to ask the person permission to offer them a criticism. You could say like, “hey, would it be alright if I make an observation about the way you handled that situation” or “do you mind if I offer you a couple constructive criticisms about your song” or whatever. Then, if the person says yes, they won’t feel like they are being attacked because they’ve given consent. Or they’ll have the opportunity to say “you know what? I’m really sort of feeling on edge so maybe another time would be better for us to talk.” That way, instead of gauging for yourself whether or not the person is in a state to tolerate the criticism, you can let them decide for themselves. What do you think about this idea?

I responded:

Time for FeedbackI like your idea. It goes along with considering person variables. For me, personally, I’m almost always up to hearing criticism, even if it may sting. Therefore, always asking me for permission would eventually become tiresome. But until you know someone well, starting off the relationship as you suggest, makes sense. And if, in time, you learn the person is very sensitive about criticism, continuing asking for permission would be the wise course of action.

Others argued that unless you are invited to provide criticism, you should keep your mouth shut.  And others argued that even if you are invited to provide criticism, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  I address these issues in a post titled, UNSOLICITED CRITICISM: GOOD OR BAD?  Very briefly, I agreed that these ideas were worthwhile to consider before providing criticism, but after this consideration there were times when providing uninvited criticism makes sense.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

In a post titled “PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: A LESSON FROM THOMAS JEFFERSON” I explained that recently I had been reading an excellent biography of Jefferson by Jon Meacham.  There, I learned that early in a relationship Jefferson typically avoided mentioning any fault in his new companion.  He felt that later, once the relationship was well developed, was a better time to discuss differences of opinion.  As Meacham describes Jefferson’s style, “people often talk too much and listen too little, which can be self-defeating, for in many instances the surer route to winning a friend is not to convince them that you are right but that you care what they think. Everyone wants to believe that what they have to say is fascinating, illuminating, and possibly even epochal.” In that line of thinking, Jefferson advised a daughter:  “Much better…if our companion views a thing in a light different from what we do, to leave him in quiet possession of his view.  What is the use of rectifying him if the thing be unimportant; and if important let it pass for the present, and wait a softer moment and more conciliatory occasion of revising the subject together.” Now Jefferson clearly recognized there was exceptions to this general rule, but nevertheless it makes a great deal of sense that whenever we are tempted to provide negative criticism careful consideration of this idea makes sense.

Illustration by Aviva Maltin

Illustration by Aviva Maltin

Another set of comments came from a few parents who argued that although the five levels of maturity made sense when adults were interacting with other adults, when parents provided negative criticism to their children, yelling, and even hitting were perfectly permissible.  I responded to this in a post titled, PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: DEFENDING THE FIVE LEVELS.  The issues this raises are simply too complicated to summarize here, so I’ll just refer interested readers to that post.

Finally, someone on Facebook presented the idea that it is helpful to use the sandwich approach to providing negative criticism.  Here you begin with a slice of some positive comment, then you put on top of that the negative criticism, and then, on top of that, you provide another slice of positive criticism.

OK! So, basically, in a very abbreviated manner, those are some ideas we have already discussed.  Now, to a new set of guidelines.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Approach to Providing Negative Criticism

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett

About a week ago on the internet I came upon a post by Maria Popova titled, “How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently.”  There I learned that Mr. Dennett has provided the following guidelines for composing a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I kind of like this.  Whereas it is not inconsistent with the original five levels of providing negative criticism, it provides some additional ideas to consider.

Over the course of a week or two I’ll come up with some specific examples that demonstrate Dennett’s approach. Until then, my best wishes to you all,



Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


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