Complaints vs. Criticisms

3 min read


I’ve been working as a simulated client in some of the communication labs at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph for several years now.  It’s a great program designed to improve and enhance veterinary students’ communication skills by having them participate in actual case studies with live simulated clients.

In many cases we have to give the student veterinarian feedback on how the communication went from the client’s perspective.  Feedback must be given using a specific method that, at first, felt very contrived.  I really struggled to remember exactly how I was supposed to word my feedback:

  1. Describe the behaviour that you saw or heard, without using any judgmental language – When I heard you say ‘X’
  2. Express your response to that behaviour describing how that behaviour made you feel – I felt ‘Y’
  3. Explain why you feel that way – Because ‘Z’

In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman calls this method nondefensive speaking.  Nondefensive speaking is about “keeping what is said to a specific complaint rather than escalating to a personal attack”.  Because this type of open communication is not bullying, threatening, or insulting it does not “allow for any of the innumerable forms of defensiveness – excuses, denying responsibility, counterattacking with a criticism, and the like.”

In my personal life, I have noticed how communication with my teenage daughter improves when I remember to use nondefensive language.  If I start with an accusatory You statement or a criticism like You aren’t listening to me, she shuts down.  She hears the blaming words, interprets them as an attack, stops listening to me, and instead starts preparing her defence – as most of us would.

When I use nondefensive communication, I assume total ownership of my perception, right or wrong, and how it made me feel – there is no blaming my feelings on the other person.  By conveying my point as a complaint rather than a criticism I am much more likely to be heard.

Goleman explains that when using a nondefensive complaint you state specifically what is upsetting you, and criticize the other person’s action, not the other person.  By telling the other person how the action made you feel you are providing them with an opportunity to modify their action or behaviour if they so choose.  “You aren’t listening to me”, can be rephrased into, “When I saw you checking your phone while I was talking to you, I felt annoyed because I didn’t think you were listening to me”.

Unfortunately nondefensive speaking does not always come naturally to us.  It must be practiced on a regular basis to become automatic and ready for use when a stressful situation or issue arises.  I struggle to remember to use nondefensive communication when needed, but I’m working on it … When I remember to use nondefensive communication in a potentially stressful interaction, I feel optimistic because tempers are less likely to flare and issues more likely to be resolved.

About Lisa Ivaldi

Lisa loves sharing information that will have a positive impact. is a personal growth blog that uses personal stories and expert theories to share ideas and perspectives. Sometimes looking at things slightly differently can make a huge difference.
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5 Responses to Complaints vs. Criticisms

  1. Here’s a lesson many of us need to learn – me in particular. I can sure set people and myself off. Thank you Lisa, I need to work on this, now if I could only remember the steps.

  2. krekker says:

    I have been using the skills we learned on Monday with my family this week! Partly to make it feel less contrived, but I’m also hoping that by using non-defensive communication, they will be more open to what I am saying, even if it isn’t positive at the time. 🙂 Thanks for the post about it!

  3. Cheryl Ambrose says:

    Good idea, I shall try and implement. Not that I haven’t heard this before, it’s just that I never thought of doing it with my daughter. 🙂

  4. Heather says:

    I appreciated this article and will try to practice more of this with my son. Thank you!

  5. Paula Clarke says:

    I too need to excercise this more and appreciate the reminder. I so want to be a better communicator and person, so thank you! = D

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