In last week’s post I began to discuss some forms of implied criticism.

dilbert indirect

In this Dilbert comic that we first looked at in last week’s post, we see that complimenting someone in front of another person can lead to an experience that feels like a subtle form of negative criticism.  Learning to recognize not only the most obvious types of negative criticism, but the more subtle forms as well, can improve our ability to handle difficult anger arousing situations.

A single lesson on identifying the more subtle forms of negative criticism is really not sufficient for most of us to actually begin to utilize this skill in a helpful manner.  Therefore, today we will practice this skill some more. Then we will look at an example of a woman who is dealing with a challenging interpersonal interaction.  We will see that by combining her knowledge of subtle forms of negative criticism with some of the other skills that she has learned from following this blog, a difficult anger arousing situation can have a positive outcome.

Last week, I mentioned that making a suggestion is one form of indirect negative criticism.  Let’s take a second look at this.


peanuts suggestion

Often when someone offers a suggestion, a criticism is lurking within the suggestion—sometimes the direct kind and sometimes the implied kind.  When Lucy suggests to Charlie Brown that “we just sort of slip away,” it implies that she has evaluated the team’s performance and she does not like it.

In the workplace, terms like “providing feedback” and “input” are often used as alternative terms to “offering a suggestion.”


In addition to complimenting someone in front of another person and making suggestions, another indirect, implied type of negative criticism is making educational recommendations.

Recommending Education

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

Illustration by Lois Hubertz


Like the word “suggestion,” whenever you hear the word “instruction,” you would be wise to think that some criticism is most likely close about.  In order to make this point concrete, let’s go back to the scenario we used last week that involves Katrina and Betty, but let’s change it a bit.

In this example, instead of looking over to Betty’s wilting tomato plants and then making a suggestion to move the plants to a sunnier area in the garden, Katrina offers to give some “instruction” on how to plant tomatoes.  Although Katrina doesn’t directly say she thinks Betty’s skills can use some improvement, why else would she offer to provide her the instruction?  When people say, “I think your skills can use some improvement,” it is a form of criticism.

An Example that Utilizes the Skill to Recognize Subtle Forms of Negative Criticism

Let’s go back, once again, to the example we used in last week’s blog post.  Betty has invited Katrina over for some tea in her backyard.  The sun is shining and the birds are singing a pleasant song.  As the two friends chat, Katrina glances over at Betty’s tomato plants.

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

“Betty,” says Katrina, “let me make a suggestion.  Perhaps it would be better if you moved your plants to that sunny patch over there a few yards from your hedge.  They’ll get lots of sun there.”

“Listen, Katrina, I don’t care for your coming over here criticizing my gardening skills?”

“Criticize!” yells Katrina.  “I didn’t criticize anything!  All I did was offer a suggestion!”

Notice that in this example when Katrina provides Betty her “suggestion,” Katrina doesn’t recognize that she has indeed provided Betty negative criticism.  And then, when Betty responds to Katrina’s criticism by criticizing Katrina for criticizing her, Katrina gets defensive, shouting at Betty that she didn’t criticize anything!

This example illustrates the problems that can occur when both parties in a conflict are unskilled at dealing with criticism.

Let’s once again change this Katrina-Betty scenario a bit.  This time, let’s pretend that Katrina has been reading my blog and therefore she has been getting more and more familiar with some of its basic ideas.

Katrina looks over to Betty’s wilting tomato plants.  Betty,” she says, “let me make a suggestion.  Perhaps it would be better if you moved your plants to that sunny patch over there a few yards from your hedge.  They’ll get lots of sun there.”

“Listen, Katrina, I don’t care for your coming over here criticizing my gardening skills.”

When Katrina hears this, because she has been reading my blog, she quickly recognizes that Betty is now criticizing her.  Immediately, the image of a woman comes to her mind:

female-criticsmThen Katrina pauses.  She thinks about how she is about to respond to Betty, and notices that she is feeling defensive, and she is about to start shouting at Betty, denying that she has provided any criticism.  Katrina then thinks about my blog post titled RESPONDING TO CRITICISM:  FOUR LEVELS OF MATURITY.  She ends up saying to herself, “That response I was getting ready to give to Betty would be rated a fairly immature level–something like level 2 or 3.  What would a more mature level look like?”

Katrina then tries to come up with a response to Betty that would be more like level 4.  Katrina also thinks about what she learned about implied criticism from my blog and from this she comes to recognize that Betty is correct.

After a few more seconds of thought, Katrina feels pretty comfortable with the new response that she has come up with and decides to give it a try.  She recognizes that if her response doesn’t lead to something positive, she can always summarize in a caring way Betty’s concern and then say that she will think more about this over the next few days (see blog post Summarize and Delay).

And so, Katrina begins to respond to Betty’s angry reply:

“Betty” says Katrina, “you say that you don’t like that I criticized your gardening skills.  When I said what I said, I thought I was just offering you a suggestion.  But after some thought, I see you are right.  My suggestion does imply that I criticized your gardening skills.”

“It certainly did!” Betty says.

“I also see, Betty, that you don’t like to be criticized.  I really like you a lot, so now that I know this, I’ll try to be more sensitive about that.”

“No one likes to be criticized, Katrina?  Do you?”

“Well, Betty, actually I used to have a lot of difficulty dealing with criticism, but now I’m much more comfortable with it.  I feel that I can handle it in a warm, friendly way that helps me to understand what others are thinking about me and I learn wisdom from it.  There’s still some times when I find that it can be pretty painful to hear, and sometimes my husband gives me so much criticism all at one time that I end up asking him to back off for awhile.”

“That reminds me of today’s Sally Forth comic,” says Betty.  And after digging through her newspaper that was sitting on her patio table, Betty shows the comic to Katrina.

sally 1Sally 2sally 3sally 4

Smiling, Katrina says, “Yes, Betty, that comic does captures how I sometimes begin to feel when my husband, Frank, keeps giving me one criticism after another in a real short period of time and I do get so I want to clobber him.  Instead, we once discussed it when we weren’t all worked up and angry about something, and we made an agreement.  Whenever he begins to criticize me and I’ve had enough, instead of ruining one of his shirts, I just tell him in a loving manner that I’ve had enough for now.  He’s agreed to back off whenever I say that, and I do the same thing for him when he asks me to back off for awhile.  It’s less expensive then buying a new shirt.”

“Well, Katrina, maybe I am a little too sensitive about being criticized.  I think it’s because of how some people in my family criticize me.  I have a younger sister, and whenever she criticizes me, she starts to shout and call me an idiot.  And I know she knows how to criticize in a nice way because when she’s with her boyfriend, she’s so sweet when she criticizes him.  Maybe I should talk with her when we’re not in the middle of a quarrel about it.”

“That’s a great idea, Betty.”

Well, that’s today’s lesson.  I hope you found it helpful.


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 and social 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. DEALING WITH SUBTLE FORMS OF CRITICISM | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    December 22, 2013 - 1:10 pm

  2. Dealing with Criticism: A Calvin and Hobbes Lesson | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing
    July 24, 2014 - 10:10 am

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