How to Change People Without Criticizing Them

In Dale Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the first principle is, "Don't criticize, condemn or complain." That seems impossible doesn't it? We need to criticize sometimes because some people fool themselves about their shortcomings or simply don't know any better. Living and working with other people requires you to criticize occasionally.

But almost everyone dislikes criticism and resents the criticizer. Criticism evokes negative feelings of tension, resentment, and hurt feelings. And if it is done poorly, a criticism (and the defensive response people often make to it) can solidify and fortify the very thing you're trying to change, making it virtually impossible to change in the future.

This is a tough situation but you can soften or eliminate many of the dangers of criticizing with a simple method. It doesn't come naturally (you need to practice the method to do it well) but it is a way to criticize without creating hard feelings. It is a way to help people change for the better. It will allow you to have a more positive impact on the people you live and work with, and helps you avoid adding more tension and anxiety to your life.

What seems impossible — never criticizing — becomes possible when you change the criticism into a request before it leaves your mouth. Do not say anything about a mistake the person made. That's in the past. Do not tell them they are wrong or need to get their ears cleaned or whatever. Simply request what you want in the future.

A typical criticism might go something like this: "You never pay attention. I have told you this a hundred times! Stop throwing your jacket on the floor. Quit being such a slob!" That's the way criticisms naturally occur to us. But it isn't the most effective way to deliver one. It won't get you the results you want. It destroys feelings of affection. Changed to a request, it'll sound more like this: "Please hang up your jacket."

What do you think? If you were on the receiving end of that, would you have a different experience? Which would you like better? Yeah, me too. Turn your complaint into a request.

It still isn't the most fun thing to do, but modifying a criticism into a request takes some of the discomfort out of it for both of you. And admitting you aren't perfect makes it even easier to hear. It also improves your own state. It keeps you from feeling "holier-that-thou."

"But I've already told him several times," one woman said to me, "I've already done that and it doesn't work."

"Have you ever tried to change a habit?" I asked her.

"Of course I have."

"Tell me about a habit you have changed successfully."

She thought about it for a few seconds and said, "I used to bite my fingernails when I was younger."

"That's a good one," I said, "Now tell me: After you made the decision to stop biting your fingernails, did your habit disappear immediately?"

"No. But I…"

"Of course not," I interrupted, "because habits don't disappear that easily. You probably tried and failed several times before you finally succeeded."

"Yes, but…"

I was on a roll, so I interrupted the poor woman again, "Now think about this: You want your husband to call you when he's going to be late because you don't like to worry, and you have successfully converted your criticisms into requests — congratulations and good work, by the way — but he still doesn't call you.

"Well, he did the time before last. But he didn't last night."

"This is how habits are formed," I said, practically yelling, "first you decide to change something. An opportunity to put your decision into practice comes and goes and you completely forgot — your new decision doesn't occur to you until afterwards. You make up your mind you'll remember next time, and you fail again. And maybe again and again. But if you keep trying, one day it will occur to you in time to apply the new habit. You may miss the next opportunity or two, but if you keep trying, eventually you can form a new habit."

"Okay, I get it," she says, "I need to give him time to form the habit. I guess I can do that."

"It's not going to be that easy," I said. "It is not his habit he is trying to change. It is his habit you are trying to change, and if you want to be successful, you'll have to take responsibility to remind him over and over — lovingly, patiently, with a full understanding of how difficult it is to change a habit. If you can do this and persist, he will change his habit, if he loves you."

"He loves me," she said quietly. "This is good. I guess I never really thought if it that way. But I'm pretty sure if I do it like you said, he would change. He'd do anything for me."

She did do it, and she was right — he changed. She made her criticism into a request and asked it with affection again and again. She was able to do it because she didn't criticize or condemn him.


The author of To Thine Own Self Be True, Lewis Andrews, wrote:

In the field of management, there is the intriguing work of Daniel Isenberg, a Harvard Business School professor who has spent many years studying the qualities which differentiate a dynamic executive from his less successful contemporaries. Contrary to the popular stereotype of the high achiever as an arrogant autocrat, impatiently judging colleagues and insensitive to the needs of subordinates, Isenberg has found the most successful senior managers are quite extraordinary in their ability to refrain from overt criticism of others, often humorously conceding when they themselves are wrong. They also take a greater than normal interest in the emotional comfort of their fellow workers and have a tendency to transform everyday resentments over unexpected problems into constructive questions about how to improve their company's operations.

I used to have a natural tendency to be too blunt when I criticized people. I didn't like to criticize, so I tried to get it over with as quickly as possible. I knew it didn't work, but it was a habit. I decided to change it.

Klassy, my wife, occasionally gives keynote addresses and adult education classes, and one night I was sitting in on one of her presentations. There are two important facts about criticizing, and she was explaining them.

The first is that it helps to "sandwich" a criticism between two positive statements, and the second is that it works better to ask for what you want in the future rather than criticize what has already happened. She encapsulated them in this short phrase: Make em right, make a request, make em right.

I thought to myself, "That's it!" That's a short, easy-to-remember phrase that says the whole idea. It even has a nice rhythm to it. I started to repeat the phrase often, and it became part of my thinking habits — it started coming into my mind by itself.

One night I was writing a note to my son and I wrote a command and a criticism. Then the thought occurred to me: Make him right, make a (polite) request, make him right. I threw away the old note and wrote a new one. It said the same thing as the old one, but in a different way — a way that would inspire cooperation instead of grudging compliance and resentment.

A researcher at the University of Washington and the author of The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, John Gottman, PhD, has found that the difference between a request and a criticism is crucial to the longevity and happiness of a marriage. Criticism is about the past, and it's usually an attack of the person. A request centers on behavior in the future. That little difference makes a big difference.

As Gottman has discovered, requests for change are one of the healthiest things to do for a marriage. Criticism, and the mutual contempt that can evolve out of it, is the most destructive. People can forget why they ever fell in love in the first place.

Criticism doesn't usually go anywhere. "You're so selfish!" When someone says that to you, what can you do? Become less selfish? What does that even mean? But how much easier it is to respond to the request: If you're going to be more than 20 minutes late, please call me and let me know. When someone says that to you, what can you do? Well, you can do it, or you can say, "How about later than 30 minutes," or whatever. But the point is, you can do something about it other than feel bad. And that's what's important: It minimizes the negativity. It's more efficient. And it makes it easier to stay in love, and love is what it's all about.

You see, there's no way you're going to be able to live with someone without disliking some things. No two people are perfectly compatible. We're all different, and you put any two of us together for awhile, and some things are going to start rubbing us wrong. But we can compromise. We can bargain. We can communicate, and by doing so, we can minimize the unhappiness and maximize the pleasure. Fun stuff is almost always more fun when someone you love is with you.


In a study by Aron Siegman, PhD, compared students describing an incident that made them mad. When they were allowed to freely express themselves, their heart rate and blood pressure went up sharply. But when they deliberately spoke in a calm voice while they told about an incident that made them mad, their heart rate and blood pressure remained normal. This is one of many studies that show how expressions of anger keep you angry or make you angrier.

But you don't need to read the research — just experiment for yourself. Next time you're angry, express it. The time after that, don't express your feelings of anger, but instead, make a request, calmly, without any show of anger if you can manage it.

Go back and forth like that, trying one and then the other, and you will discover, perhaps to your astonishment, that expressing your anger only makes you angrier.

Anger is a feeling of strongly wanting something to change. Don't express anger; make a request. Produce a change. Your anger will evaporate. It isn't something that you "bottle up." It doesn't accumulate and need to be "vented." Those are old wives tales. Their falsity has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. What ends the feeling of anger is efficacy — the actual accomplishment of some change, either of another person, of a condition, or of yourself. Producing a change. That's what ends anger.

If you throw a fit, and the person does what you wanted them to, you've produced the change you were after, and so your anger will evaporate. But you've also damaged your health and your relationship with that person. If you try requests and they don't work, you could try threats, and if that doesn't work and nothing else seems to work, go ahead and throw a fit. But try the other stuff first, and save yourself the wear and tear on your heart, and I mean literally, not figuratively.

Every time you get angry, adrenaline causes the heart to race and blood pressure to rise, and this is what causes damage. Adrenaline-laden blood surging unchecked through the arteries injures the artery walls, making them more susceptible to plaque deposits and blood clots, and that's what causes heart attacks. And it gets worse as you go along. As the plaque deposits make the arteries narrower, then a reaction of anger makes the blood vessels constrict even more, making the heart work that much harder. Hostility more than doubles a person's risk of developing coronary disease. That's a significant risk factor.

The solution? Don't try to forget about things that are important. If someone cuts you off on the freeway or something petty like that, yes, learn how to forget it. But if someone is doing something that makes you angry, someone you love or someone at work, it may be appropriate to make a request. That's what will cure your anger: A direct request for a change. Over time, you will be more in control of your life, and the frequency of angering episodes will become less frequent. This will make your heart and your relationships healthier.


Generally speaking, a negative approach doesn't work as well as a constructive, positive approach. People just respond better to positivity than to negativity.

Back in the days of the draft, a young psychology student was drafted into the Army. One of his jobs was in the K.P. duty. He was to hand out apricots on the chow line. Normally, apparently the soldiers don't like Army apricots. So the psychology student did some experiments.

So as the men came up to his post, he said, "You don't want apricots, do you?"

Ninety percent said no.

Then he changed it to this: "You do want some apricots, don't you?"

Close to fifty percent said yes.

Then he tried another one: "One dish of apricots, or two?"

With this one, ninety percent said yes — fifty percent took one dish and forty percent took two.

Remember this. Give your requests in a way that most of the people in your life say YES.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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