Why would anyone criticize someone else? Generally, there are two answers: To hurt someone’s feelings, or to change someone. If you want to criticize people to hurt their feelings, you need to do more than read a blog. But, if you want to learn how to use criticism to build closeness while changing the other person, read on.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about how fights can be turned into intimate moments. In this blog, let’s focus on how to use criticism (one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen www.gottman.com) to improve closeness while trying to change someone else.

What Is Criticism?

In relationships, most behavioral psychologists define criticism as negative attacks on yourself or someone else. In contrast, psychologists use the term complain (not criticize) when you ask someone to change. But, let’s skip the semantics—here are four ways to use criticism effectively.

1) Start out Soft: When asking someone to change, try beginning with a soft statement. John Gottman calls this the “softened start-up.” Shift from the “You don’ts…” to the “I miss…” formulation. A great strategy is to practice, on your own, re-stating a criticism using a softer message. For example “I used to love it when we had lunch sometimes. I really miss that.”

2) Talk about Your Feelings: When you want someone to change, usually your unpleasant feelings motivate you to speak up. You want to feel better. Criticism can too easily focus on hard feelings like anger or resentment. Instead, talk about the softer feelings. Incorporate sadness, loneliness, longing, or being scared into your words, so that criticism reveals a deeper part of you.

3) Share the Deeper Meaning: If you feel like taking the risk of criticizing someone, chances are pretty good whatever the other person did, it meant something to you. Friends or loved ones might not understand why you took something they did so hard. By opening up to them, the conversation becomes more intimate. The criticism won’t just change what they did; it can change how they know you.

4)  Harbor Love, not Resentment: If you hold on to something that bothers you, you will build up resentment. Burying hurt can cause your love and caring to wither. And once enough resentments build, most of us launch into an angry, ambiguous rant that catches others off-guard. Instead, try to talk about things when you are bothered, especially if your feelings are hurt. Others appreciate feedback when the situation is fresh in their mind. Also, make your criticism be specific, so that others know what you need from them.

Criticizing someone is tricky. There’s a fine-line to walk between constructive versus vindictive.  If you start-out softer, stick to your feelings, share something about the deeper you, and don’t hold things in; you’ll find complaining can help you grow closer to your friends and loved ones.