When cleaning out an old
desk of my father’s recently, I came across a priceless
treasure. It was a letter he wrote to the president of the
country club to which he belonged, detailing some personal
complaints. Reading it brought back memories of an evening in
the summer of 1959 that I’d long forgotten. It also served
to remind me of the delicate challenge we face whenever we try
to criticize someone constructively, and how we sometimes
accomplish more by not speaking our mind.
"Dear Stephen," the letter begins.
"I want to tell you about this incident, not just
because it was irritating and embarrassing to me, but more
importantly because it points up so graphically a situation I
am sure you will want to know about."
Dad explains that he had authorized me to take a female
friend to the club for dinner as his guest, and that her
parents provided transportation. "They arrived around
6:00 to 6:30. They sat in the grill for over a half-hour
without being able to get a waiter to take an order. Blaine
tells me that there were waiters standing around, that a
couple of times one started to his table with a glass of
water, and then went off in another direction.
"I had equipped Blaine with a note authorizing
charges to me, and ample cash for tips--plus instruction for
generous tipping. . . . Finally he took his girl out to the
snack bar at the swimming pool and bought hamburgers."
Dad, as it turns out, is just getting warmed up. My being
ignored as a young teenager in the grill was just the tip of
the iceberg. He goes on to say he has been frustrated
personally with the food service at times. "I have sat in
the grill and twiddled my thumbs while waiters gazed at the
ceiling--then there is always something wrong with the
service, shortage of utensils, errors or incomplete delivery
of the order, etc. My last two experiences in entertaining
important guests in the main dining room were such that Dottie
and I just don’t feel that we can take a chance any
Dad ruminates some more about these problems, then ends
page one noting, "We are just little folk, but how many
free-spending members are in a like frame of mind?"
We come now to page two of his two-page epistle. Dad
mentions that the bowling alley manager treated him rudely
during a recent visit. Yet he also backpedals. "Dottie
just spied on this letter," he confesses, "and
criticized--perhaps rightly--my comment at the previous page
about ‘not feeling that we can take a chance any more.’
Perhaps that is a little strong. . . . The point is, I often
want to entertain the persons who are important to us--you and
me and the club--and if I am trying to build up good will for
our causes with the persons we must have on our side, I want
to impress them with Stephen’s operation."
My father takes pains in the remainder of the letter to
affirm Stephen, and to commend him for doing a great job in
managing the club. The problem isn’t Stephen’s fault, he
stresses; incompetent employees are failing him.
"Unfortunately, you are being let down some--and I
know darn well you can’t be at the club 16 hours a day
riding herd on the food service. . . . I am sure you know that
I am too doggone busy to indulge in the luxury of blowing off
this much steam just for the pleasure of complaining. I am
concerned about . . . the bums who don’t back you up in the
tremendous job you have been doing in building up the Club. I
feel that I am a part of this effort, however small, and it
hurts me to see hard work and financial investment diluted by
disloyal or just plain indifferent or lazy personnel."
Dad adds in some further banter, then concludes his tome
with a supportive admonition: "I hope you knock some
heads together in your kindly and gentle way."
The Challenge of Criticizing Constructively
I marveled at how well dad had crafted this letter. His
language is animated, his grammar excellent, his expression of
thought very clear. The pages are impeccably typed, at a level
of perfection that probably required several passes and the
patience of Job to get right. He undoubtedly spent hours
mulling over the content, then laying it down in a beautifully
I marveled as well at how sensitively he expressed his
complaints to the club president. Stephen was a good friend,
and dad had performed legal work for him for years. Dad was
clearly concerned not to damage their friendship or
It impressed me greatly that, given his close friendship
with Stephen, he didn’t simply pick up the phone, call him
and ventilate. Our tendency when we’re perturbed is to do
exactly that. We want to sound off immediately. We want to get
it off our chest, to know we’ve been heard, to get
feedback--and we want it all right away. Especially so, when
our aggravation has piqued, as it had in dad’s case. What
dismayed him most was that my girlfriend’s parents, who were
members of a more prestigious club, now had a poor impression
of his. The incident surely would reflect badly on him, our
family and me.
"There is no way that I can make apology to the girl’s
family for the club’s inhospitality," he laments.
Dad had a serious grievance. His temptation to phone
Stephen at home that evening and complain must have been
strong. Still, he had the good sense to collect himself, then
express his concerns diplomatically in a letter.
When we’re frustrated, we always do best to take many
deep breaths--to allow ourselves time to calm down and
carefully think through our response. When we’re seriously
agitated with someone, it’s often a good idea first to
express our feelings in writing to them. Confronting them
verbally poses the risk that we’ll speak impulsively, then
regret we can’t "put the toothpaste back in the
tube." Putting our thoughts in writing allows us the
leisure to weigh them and revise them, until we’re certain
we’ve communicated sensitively. It also allows the other
person opportunity to measure their thoughts before
responding, decreasing the chance an argument will suddenly
spiral out of control.
Much of what made this letter such a wonderful find was the
sense that life had served me up with a timeless lesson in how
to confront someone constructively. It was inspiring to
realize how seriously dad had taken this challenge, and how
skillfully he had carried it out.
On Second Thought . . .
But here’s what touched me most. The letter was unmailed.
What I had discovered filed away in that desk drawer wasn’t
a carbon or photocopy of dad’s letter to Stephen, but the
original, folded inside a sealed envelope fully addressed. An
uncancelled four-cent stamp neatly pasted on the envelope
showed that dad had intended to mail the letter but then
changed his mind.
Why did he choose at the last minute not to mail this
treatise, over which he had obviously sweated for hours? I can
only speculate. He may have feared that, in spite of his best
efforts to be conciliatory, Stephen would still feel stung by
his criticism and respond defensively. He may have worried
that the letter would brand him at the club as a complainer.
Or, on further reflection, he may have felt compassion for the
service personnel--would Stephen overreact and fire workers
who dearly needed the employment?
Whatever his reasons, dad concluded that more would be lost
than gained by mailing the letter. I admired the fact that he
allowed farsightedness to overrule his very strong urge to
I thought immediately of a similar, though much more
notable, incident from the life of Lincoln. Following the
battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Lee’s defeated troops
retreated southward, but found the Potomac River swollen from
heavy rains and impassable. Lincoln ordered General Meade to
attack Lee’s army immediately and force them to surrender.
Meade disobeyed Lincoln and called a council of war to
deliberate the matter. While he procrastinated, the Potomac
receded and Lee escaped.
Lincoln, boiling mad that Meade allowed a golden
opportunity to entrap Lee and end the war slip away, wrote an
angry letter to his general, expressing severe disappointment
and bewilderment. Lincoln, though, never mailed the missive,
which was discovered among his papers after he died.
Dale Carnegie cites this incident in his classic How to
Win Friends and Influence People. He revels in this
example, and in similar ones from the lives of notable
individuals, observing that the most effective leaders are
those who rarely criticize their associates--even when they
are highly justified doing so. Lincoln, for instance, suffered
frequent insubordination from military commanders, yet never
condemned them, in spite of public outrage over their actions.
Criticism, Carnegie explains, seldom
brings the positive outcome we expect. Denial runs so deep in
most people that criticism fails to penetrate its shell.
"Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the
defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself.
Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s
precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses
Carnegie so passionately believes criticism is usually
counterproductive, that he devotes the first chapter of his
book to expounding the point. He comes close to saying, in the
early part of his book, that
those of us who wish to be successful leaders or
friendship-builders should never criticize those with
whom we wish to build ties.
There is, of course, an irony in Carnegie’s position. He
makes his point by criticizing. He criticizes those who
are critical, criticizes the belief that constructive
criticism is usually constructive, and indirectly, at least,
criticizes any of us who would disagree with him.
It’s this irony that points out how impractical--and
undesirable--it is to adopt an extreme position of never
criticizing anyone under any circumstances. There are jobs
that require it (what teacher can be effective who never
points out to students where they need to grow?), occasions in
family life and friendships where it’s needed, and abusive
situations where it’s demanded. And we encounter those
remarkable, magnanimous people, who not only benefit from our
criticism, but even appreciate it (Prov. 17:10, 27:5-6).
Still, Carnegie has his point, which, given his folksy
style, is better made by hyperbole when he first introduces it
than by musing over
exceptions.* I agree with Carnegie at this
point: Most of the time, when we believe someone will
benefit from our criticism, or imagine we’ll experience
catharsis by getting it off our chest, we’re mistaken. Far
from helping the other person, our criticism hurts them, and
triggers their defenses. They become more entrenched in the
position we wish to correct. And catharsis? Forget it. Even if
an argument doesn’t ensue, we feel dejected that our
criticism didn’t improve things, and wish we’d held our
The last state is especially likely to be worse than
the first when our criticism is (a) unsolicited, (b) given in
anger, (c) provided without a healthy dose of humility--where
we point out that we also have serious faults and need the
Lord’s help just as greatly.
Even when given with substantial humility, we sometimes
help someone more by not offering our critique. And even
criticism that is solicited sometimes hurts more than edifies.
Jesus on Criticism’s Boomerang Effect
Centuries before Carnegie preached his doctrine of not
criticizing, Jesus urged similar constraint in a statement
that surely stunned many listeners: "Judge not, that you
be not judged" (Mt 7:1 RSV).
The judgment we express to someone else--or merely nurture
in our heart--typically flies back in our face like sand
thrown into an approaching wind, Jesus says. By criticizing
someone, we spur them to look more diligently for our faults,
which they will surely find and expose. Jesus certainly
implies a deeper principle here, too--that God is about the
business of humbling those who seek to humble others.
His command also suggests a vital psychological insight.
The fact that we are able to feel intensely critical of
someone over a matter so often indicates we’re guilty of a
similar offense. It’s precisely because we’re aware from
personal experience of how disabling this problem can be that
we’re able so quickly to identify it in someone else. Yet we
find it far more comfortable to focus on the other’s problem
than our own. Projection is what psychologists term it
Thus, Jesus continues: "For with the judgment you
pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be
the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your
brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own
eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the
speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own
eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye,
and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your
brother’s eye" (Mt 7:2-5).
It’s beyond any question that Jesus intended the
principle of not judging to be pervasive in the
Christian life. His language is emphatic--judge not--almost
as though he entertains no exceptions. Did he mean there is
absolutely, positively never a time when we should criticize
anyone? Clearly not, for he implies we’ll sometimes need to
address the "speck" in another’s eye. Yet the
emphasis in his imagery could not be plainer. We should focus
primarily on our own problems, and require a strong burden of
proof before approaching anyone else about theirs.
We must conclude from Jesus’ teaching, too, that
ventilation purely for its own sake is never justified. The
likelihood is great it will be harmful--both to the person we
rebuke and to ourselves.
Is Ventilation a Safety Valve?
But aren’t we in danger of damaging our psychological
health by not expressing our feelings of anger? Many
psychologists believe so. According to ventilationist theories
that have pervaded psychological thinking for the past
century, we store anger, and unless unleashed, it will
grow and intensify, until we explode like Mount Vesuvius.
Carol Tavris debunks this notion in
her excellent book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion.*
We don’t store anger, Tavris points out, any more than we
store positive emotions. Who would claim, for instance, that
we’ll explode if we don’t express joy or gratitude? What’s
more, expressing anger--far from relieving it--often nurtures
it, for by focusing on our angry feelings we intensify them.
Expressing our anger, too, frequently sets up a chain of
events that worsens the situation which has upset us, leaving
us even more aggravated.
Anger is relieved, Tavris insists, not by its being
expressed, but by the resolution of the problem that has
Imagine, for instance, that a coworker informs you that she
overheard your boss tell his secretary you’re going to be
fired. You’ve served this company faithfully and diligently
for years. Besides, you’ve had a cordial relationship your
boss, who recently commended you highly for your work. You’re
outraged, not only that he’d think of terminating you, but
that he’d be so duplicitous as to imply he’s pleased with
your work when he’s actually intending to let you go.
For two weeks your resentment grows, and you barely sleep.
Then comes the dreaded invitation to your boss’s office. You
sit stunned, as he explains that he intends to--promote
you. Later, your coworker admits she must have misunderstood
that conversation she overheard.
Now--what happens to your burning anger in that astonishing
moment when you learn that you had things completely wrong?
Why, it vanishes, of course. Yet if it’s true that we store
anger, it must still be there, still needing to be vented in
some way. There’s no mistaking, though, that it’s
gone--even though you haven’t let it out at all. You have no
more sensation of it than you would of physical pain that is
Each of us has endless experiences like this, where anger
that we’ve never expressed disappears in a moment, once the
situation that upset us is resolved to our satisfaction.
Reflecting on such episodes should convince us that we’re
not endangering our equilibrium by keeping the lid on angry
Whether expressing our anger relieves it depends upon the
results. Sometimes venting does improve things. The person we
confront is contrite, and makes a sincere effort to address
the problem that has perturbed us. We feel validated for being
assertive. Our anger dissolves.
In many other cases we’re severely disappointed with the
outcome. The person we confront is defensive. Nothing
improves. We’re frustrated with ourselves for caving in to
the urge to ventilate. Expressing our anger has magnified it.
The most redemptive thing we can do when we feel compelled
to confront someone with whom we’re angry is to consider as
honestly as we can what the results are likely to be. Are we
confident that speaking our mind will help heal the situation?
Then we should do so. If we’re less than certain about the
outcome, we should hold our peace.
Different Levels of Assertiveness
Even if we realize that confronting someone may do more
harm than good, we may still feel compelled to do so in order
to preserve our integrity. Holding back our criticism when
someone deserves it is cowardly, we assume, and sends the
wrong message. We need to be frank to stay properly assertive.
Yet a vital part of being assertive is owning our own life.
We don’t fully own our life if our well-being depends upon
how others think about us or respond to us. If I feel it
necessary to tell someone off in order to save my pride, I’m
letting that person have too much control over my life. My
happiness is hinging too greatly on his needing to know I can
stand up for myself, and upon my needing to affect him in a
certain way. It’s a higher form of assertiveness in this
case to hold my tongue, especially if I know that speaking my
mind is likely to undermine things further.
So often, too, the person we want to criticize is already
well aware we’re upset with them, and knows exactly what we
want to say. They are braced for a confrontation, and ready
with their best defense. The fact that we choose not to
confront them may leave them surprised and grateful enough
that they drop their defenses, and in humility take steps on
their own initiative to address the problem that has angered
Tom Wolfe has observed that effective writing results more
from what writers leave out than from what they include. In
the same way, we sometimes have greater influence on someone
through what we don’t say than through what we do. We are
more effectively assertive in these cases by holding our
I’m not suggesting that we should use silence as a weapon.
If our motive in not confronting someone is to hurt them
through our silence, then we’re still allowing them to
control our feelings too greatly. If we know that confronting
someone is not likely to produce the results we want, then our
goal should be to forgive this person. By letting go of
animosity toward them rather than ventilating it, we’re not
only acting graciously toward them, but doing ourselves an
enormous favor as well--for we’re removing any possibility
that this person’s action will continue to frustrate us.
Indeed, forgiveness is the most supremely assertive step we
I don’t mean to downplay the challenge often involved in
achieving genuine forgiveness. Yet it helps to know that by
offering someone forgiveness we’re not demonstrating
weakness, but extraordinary character strength.
It helps, too, to know that the anger we’re releasing
will not remain secretly buried in some deep recess of our
psyche, and come back later to haunt us or damage our life. At
worst, we may feel a little embarrassed--that friends may
think we’re off our rocker for having let go of anger so
Or, that someone years from now may find and read that
spirited letter we wrote and revised so carefully, then buried
forever in our desk drawer.