Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing five different reasons why people provide criticism and how to respond to them:

  3. The desire to form a bond with a group by putting down non-group members (see MAKING THE BUS MONITOR CRY: WHY THE BOYS DID IT)

We also discussed how to deal with the anger we may begin to experience when we are being criticized (see BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 1 , BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 2, and ANGER, RUMINATIONS AND MEDITATION).

We now begin to look at the other side of the criticism coin.  Just like there are immature and mature ways to respond to criticism, there are immature and mature ways to provide criticism.  Our focus today is on different maturity levels of providing negative criticism when our desire is to encourage someone to make some improvement.


Below you will find preliminary descriptions of how people at five developmental levels of maturity provide 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.

  • Person variables that are considered:  From observing how the person to be criticized handled criticism in the past, he or she determines which of the five levels of responding to criticism is most characteristic of the individual. (For example, if someone tends to physically attack the criticizer when criticized and is big enough to cause real bodily harm, then a decision is made either to not provide the criticism or to provide it only when there is sufficient security, or else someone else is employed to provide the criticism who is capable of dealing safely with the attack prone person.)  Other person variables considered are how sensitive the person is when criticized, is the person to be criticized currently in an angry or sad mood, is the criticism likely to be perceived as particularly difficult to bear, versus something likely to be viewed as a relatively minor matter, and if the criticizer’s relationship with the person to be criticized is less than ideal.  Depending on such variables, consideration is given to waiting until the person is in a pleasant mood and enlisting someone else to provide the criticism such as a more neutral person, a friend, or someone who is admired by the person who will be criticized.  When the person to be criticized is particularly sensitive about an issue, a fictionalized story with a character who displays the offending behavior may be presented, and then the character’s behavior is discussed.
  • Situation characteristics that are consideredAre there other people around that will lead to face saving behavior coming into play?  Is there enough time set aside to process the criticism?  Has the person who is to provide the criticism been providing too much negative criticism in too short a period of time? (In this case, consideration is given to waiting until some time goes by in which some positive things are said over the course of several days before hitting the person to be criticized over the head yet again!)



A good way to become familiar with the five levels is to cut out comics from the paper that illustrate someone providing criticism to someone else.  Then, from time to time compare the descriptions of the five levels to how the character in the comic provided the criticism and then see if you can choose which level best matches the criticism style.  For example, in the Peanuts comic that I used above to illustrate a level five response, with Lucy deciding to give Charlie some time to calm down, I actually altered the last panel in the comic for educational purposes.  The real comic, in its entirety appears below.

In this comic, if you will, compare Lucy’s criticism to each of the five levels and see if you can choose which level is the best match.  In coming weeks, we’ll be practicing these types of skills in a variety of fun ways.

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.


About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. All emotions are healthy- anger, worry, and sadness as frightened behaviors « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci
    September 2, 2012 - 2:55 pm

  2. Why Do We Criticize? | Cindy Ortiz – Leap Like a Frog
    September 2, 2012 - 7:14 pm

  3. Hey 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?

  4. Hi JSR,

    I 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.

    Thanks for your suggestion. I will think about a way to succinctly incorporate your idea into any future description I provide of level five.

    My Best,


  5. Reblogged this on Inside the Stormy Prison and commented:
    I haven’t read this yet but found it in a WRAP group. It looks like an interesting blog entry with links to more on “Anger, Conflict and Respect”.

  6. And I don’t seem to have a copywriter on the name. What did “I” allegegedly write about criticism, Carol? Are there two Jeffrey Ruben’s on this site? You seem angered by whatever I said to you and I wonder why?

    If all these articles on criticism are not yours, then I am sure you can understand the confusion for me.

  7. and I don’t seem to have a copywriter on the name. What did “I” allegegedly write about criticism, Carol?

    Dr. Ruben. Are these your articles on criticism or not? I know how popular and busy you are and you must receive so very many emails from people like me but I originally disagreed with anybody taking lessons on criticism. Then, I changed my mind and thought your tactic was a good one. Then, common sense took over long enough to say to you: “Yes. Dr. Ruben. This criticism method of yours might be good for children who are arrogant and sensitive and cherished and loved and whatever your life experience has been, but even a PhD in psychology is having a hard time taking criticism from me. Now, school me again on why severely abused children who have been told they aren’t wanted and they are cramping their mother’s life style or father’s drinking nights by their very presence and these children really prefer death over life; how much criticism do you believe these children need to take from you and all the other people they will meet in their lives? Why was this a GOOD IDEA? Even you, Sir, cannot be criticized because YOU made something innocent into something where I’m alleging this and that about you as if I have an evil motive to trick you or something I would never do to anyone. If these articles are not yours, once again, then who wrote them and posted them on your web site? If this comment is deleted, I don’t care, but isn’t it rather ironic that you allegedly didn’t write articles on criticism and you can’t take any criticism?

    • Hi Carol Noel Smith,

      Thanks for your enquiry and comment. I indeed write all of the blog post at this blog. By the way, my name is spelled a little different than your comment suggests. It is Rubin. Also, I actually can be criticized. I invite criticism. I don’t view you as having an evil motive, and if I said anything that seemed to imply this, I apologize. Also, I agree with you that some kids, and adults as well, are so very sensitive to receiving criticism that we would be wise to keep in mind how sensitive they are and be ever so cautious about how or if we provide criticism.

Write Your Comment

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>