When cleaning out an old
desk of my father’s, I came across a priceless
treasure. It was a letter he wrote in 1959 to the president of
his country club.
“Dear Stephen,” it 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. “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. . . . Finally he took his girl out to the
snack bar at the swimming pool and bought hamburgers.”
It's just one of several complaints Dad details about his
frustration with incompetent employees at the club. I marveled at how well
he had crafted this letter. His
language is animated, his grammar excellent, his expression of
thought very clear. He undoubtedly spent hours
mulling the content, then laying it down in an impeccably
typed document of almost two pages. He takes pains to
affirm Stephen; the problem isn’t Stephen’s, he stresses,
but his workers are failing him. He concludes: “I hope you knock some
heads together in your kindly and gentle way.”
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. 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
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 was neatly pasted on the envelope.
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 obviously concluded that more would be lost
than gained by mailing the letter. It appears farsightedness overruled his very strong urge to
I thought immediately of a similar though much more notable incident from
Lincoln's life. 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 observes that the most effective leaders rarely criticize their associates--even when
it's highly justified.
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
resentment.”* He devotes
his first chapter to expounding the point.
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. There are jobs requiring it (what teacher can be effective
without showing 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, I agree with Carnegie at this
point: Most of the time, when we believe someone will
benefit from our criticism, or imagine that getting it off our
chest will be cathartic, we’re mistaken. Far
from helping the other person, we hurt him, and trigger his defenses.
She becomes 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 words didn’t improve things, and wish we’d held our
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 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're able to feel intensely critical of
someone over some matter often indicates we’re guilty of a
similar offense. It’s precisely because we know from
personal experience 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;
projection is what psychologists term it
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).
Jesus clearly 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.
Is Ventilation a Safety Valve?
But aren’t we in danger of damaging our psychological
health by not expressing our anger? Many
psychologists believe so. According to ventilationist theories,
pervasive in psychology 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
expression, but by the resolution of the problem provoking it.
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 with 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 of physical pain that's suddenly relieved.
Each of us has endless experiences like this, where anger
we’ve never expressed disappears in a moment, once the
situation upsetting us is happily resolved.
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 we’re angry with is to consider as
honestly as we can what the results will likely 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 confronting someone may do more
harm than good, we may still feel compelled to do so in order
to preserve our integrity. Holding back 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're
more effectively assertive by holding our
I’m not suggesting we 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 isn't likely to help, then our
goal should be to forgive this person. By letting go of
animosity 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 chance 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.