Instead of criticism, try giving others encouragement

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

“When a person deserves your criticism the most, he needs your help the most.”

Through the years, that statement was repeated often in our family life. It needles, sticks, prods, and simply won’t go away. Because it’s true!

When you are having trouble doing something, which helps the most—harsh criticism or kind encouragement?

For instance, your stomach hurts. A family member says, “Well, I’ve told you and told you that you can’t eat greasy, fried foods. But you just won’t listen. Serves you right!”

Another more sensitive family member says, “I have some medicine that might help. Let me get it for you. Perhaps we need to prepare less greasy foods in the future.”

The criticism was on target, but it did little more than cause anger juices to flow into the stomach and complicate the problem, while the other family member offered immediate help and a long-range program for preventing further problems.

Another example. Most of us fight battles-of-the-bulges constantly, trying to lose weight. Which helps the most: “My stars, if you don’t get that weight off you’re going to look like a blimp!” or “Would you like to join me in an exercise program? I need to do something to firm up my body.”

Most of us KNOW our faults and flaws, our shortcomings and sins. What we need is encouragement, not criticism. We need help moving to our strengths, not in having our weaknesses emphasized.

If you tell me long enough, “You can’t ever do that right,” then soon I will believe you and agree with you. But if you keep encouraging me, and propping-up my leaning side, soon I will stand on my own feet and be grateful to you for your help.

If you think about it, when we criticize, we are judging a situation or an individual. To criticize, as Webster defines it, is “to consider the merits and demerits and judge accordingly.” We are already in evaluate-mode, considering the positives and negatives. Why not pursue the plus side of situation?

People are more aware of the faults than we dare imagine. They constantly condemn themselves. Our criticism and condemnation only drive their faults deeper, causing frustration that ultimately may render them helpless to change.

Constant criticism, no matter how well meaning, usually produces one of two results:

  1. The person becomes devastated and gives up trying.
  2. The person hears the criticism so much that he builds up an immunity to the criticizer, never taking the person seriously, writing him off as a significant person in his life.

The latter result can divorce a married couple and alienate children from parents. The first result can wreak havoc with a person’s motivation and self-image.

As William Arthur Ward, noted American author, scholar and teacher reminds us,

Flatter me, and I may not believe you.
Criticize me, and I may not like you.
Ignore me, and I may not forgive you.
Encourage me, and I will not forget you.