To Listen, Or To Criticize?

Sally Forth a
Sally Forth 1In the above Sally Forth comic strip, we learn from Ted that Sally had a fight with her sister.  By the third panel, Ted begins to criticize Sally, saying she is coming off like a robot, and then he expresses his view that she had been kind of dismissive of her sister’s news about becoming engaged. In the last panel, I get the feeling that Sally really isn’t in a state to listen to Ted’s criticism.  And yet, Ted tries to push Sally to address his criticism.

The next day’s comic strip moves the story further along.

Sally Forth 2Here we see that Ted has come to understand that he would have been better off skipping the criticism that he had provided to Sally. Listening, he believes, would have been a better thing to do.

Sally Forth 4Now we see Sally confiding to a friend about how she feels about Ted’s criticism.  We also learn that since Ted criticized her, she has not been talking to him.

Using this series of Sally Forth comics, today we will work on three key tasks:

1. Consider when it makes more sense for Ted to listen, rather than to criticize.

2. Examine what Sally could have done that might have been better than giving Ted the silent treatment.

3. Examine some essential listening skills for those times when we believe it is better to listen, rather than to criticize.

Before we move on to these key tasks, let’s move the Sally Forth story a few days further along.

Sally Forth 9Here we learn that Ted had begun to criticize Sally immediately after Sally’s fight with her sister. That’s a crucial point that will soon be woven into our various discussions.

Three Assessment Strategies to Decide Whether to Critique or to Listen

Here, I’d like to suggest three assessment strategies to help with the decision to critique or to listen.

Sally Forth 91. Assess when the quarrel occurred. If the quarrel has occurred very recently, it’s usually best to go with listening.  Trying to present a reasoned critique shortly after a heated quarrel makes little sense because it is extra hard for people to reason carefully when they are very frustrated and angry.  By listening in a caring way you can play a huge part in helping the person to return to a state in which reasoning abilities are at their peek.

2. Assess whether it is crucial to share your critique immediately.  I think you will find that in most situations your critique can wait a day, two days, or even a week.  However, in some cases a conflict may require some immediate action and you may believe your critique is so crucial for making a wise choice, that pushing your critique to the fore makes sense.

3. Even if Ted had waited a reasonable period of time and had been making himself available to listen to Sally, before diving into his critique, it would still be a good idea for him to ask the following types of questions.  “Sally, I have some time now, do you want to talk more about what’s been happening between you and your sister?”  If Sally says yes, Ted would say something like, “So far, Sally, I’ve been mainly listening as you talked about what happened.  I’m wondering if you think you’re ready to hear some ideas that I’ve been thinking about that might be helpful, or would you prefer me to stay in a listening mode?”  After asking this question, Ted would assess how Sally replies.  Even if she says she wants to hear his ideas, if her voice appears tense, or there is a tense expression on her face, he might be wise to tread lightly on anything that Sally might find too sensitive.  Additionally, he might reasonably switch back into a listening mode if she appears to turn angry at something that he says.

Now, so far, I have been discussing what Ted could have done better to address Sally’s concerns.  Now let’s take a couple of minutes to discuss what Sally could have done better.

The Silent Treatment Versus Assertiveness

Sally Forth bIn the Sally Forth story, Sally, turning angry at Ted, decides to give him the silent treatment.  I’m wondering if there might be a better way for her to have handled this type of situation.

My wife, Andrea, is very assertive when it comes to these types of situations.  If I begin to express my views before she is ready to hear them, she just gives me a clear signal to back off, and I respect her wishes.  Maybe Sally could have said to Ted when he began to provide his critique immediately after her argument with her sister, “I see you want to critique what happened, Ted, but I prefer that you just go into a listening mode for now.”

If Sally, when she has returned to a calmer state, agrees that this assertive approach makes more sense than ending up giving Ted the silent treatment, she can practice doing this in her mind at least three times.  These practice sessions are simple and involve closing her eyes and imagining how she felt right after her fight with her sister, then recalling how Ted began to criticize her action, and then imagining herself being assertive to Ted.  By practicing this a few times, especially if she does this over the course of a few days, there is an excellent chance she will have no difficulty using the assertive approach the next time a similar situation arises.

Now, let’s once again turn our attention to what Ted could do in this situation.  Both he and Sally agree that it would have been better for him to have gone into the listening mode, rather than the critiquing mode.  But doing good listening doesn’t mean simply keeping your mouth shut while the other party talks.  There is a real art to listening.  In the next section, I’m going to present the three most helpful things to do while listening.

Three Helpful Things to Do While Listening

Sally Forth 8When Ted goes into his listening mode, there are a few things that he can do to make his listening more effective.  First, every minute or two, he could briefly summarize what she had just said. This would assure Sally that Ted is paying attention. You can learn more about how this is done by looking up the topic, reflective listening. Second, if Sally turns sad about something she is discussing, Ted could express sadness on his face as well, look into Sally’s eyes, and softly touch Sally’s shoulder.  This is called empathic listening.  Finally, Ted could learn how to validate Sally’s feelings.  For example, Sally says to Ted, “Every time I hear my sister has made some awful mistake, I feel awful inside.” Ted can validate Sally’s feeling by saying something like, “I know what you mean, I feel like that when my brother makes an awful mistake.”  When someone validates a person’s experience in this way, it helps to communicate a connection between the speaker and the listener.

Okay, so there are some ideas to think about when considering whether to listen or to criticize.  I hope you find within this post some food for thought.  My Best, Jeff

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.

Bob Dylan On Fools

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. Dr. Rubin — I continue to enjoy your blog. As a former principal of elementary and high school students, teaching discipline involved understanding when a student was still in the emotional height of feelings. I would often give a cognitive task such as a think sheet or description of what happened (including recognizing feelings). If a student wasn’t ready to fill out the sheet (still too much emotion), I tried to wait until they were able to fill out the form before talking to them.

  2. Hi Rick,
    Great to hear from you, and I love your example of how to use within a school setting the ideas I tried to convey in this weeks post.
    Much thanks,

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>