How to Rebuke with Respect? How to Criticize with compassion?

Have you ever felt defensive when someone criticized you?

Have you offered advice with sincerity and the person not only ignored it, but actually got angry at you?

Friday July 21, 2023, At The Shul in Surfside, Florida, the Rabbi explored Deuteronomy 1. In his final days Moses rebuked the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. This stimulated my curiosity about constructive criticism and reminded me of a personal story.

After several years of extraordinary medical efforts, it was clear that we were out of options and my mom’s days were numbered. She was determined to die with dignity in the view of her favorite garden. Accordingly, I arranged for her to have a final farewell with my younger daughter Lucy, then 16, who wanted to share her senior writing project with her Nana.

Knowing how proud Lucy was of her work I asked: “Mom, Please just make sure to tell her how wonderful her paper is!” Lucy presented her paper, but much to my dismay and horror my mom said “Lucy, that is not your best. You can do better.” Lucy was crestfallen. I was livid and sad. This could have been the last time they’d see each other!

Thankfully, the story has a happy ending (and not only because my mom lived long enough to hear Lucy’s revised essay).

I would like to share the story in Lucy’s words as she expressed in her Eulogy to Nana on November 2, 2015.

“Nana, you touched people with your words through your writing, and I am so inspired by your talent. You never stopped writing, book after book, articles, stories, and so much more. I always sent you every single essay I wrote, and believe me, there were a lot of them. I would send you an email every Sunday night with my latest work attached, and you would respond so quickly. You told it how it was. You never lied or exaggerated for my sake. When I wrote something you loved, you were so outspoken about how much you loved it. You would tell me how talented I am, and how proud of me you were. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote my senior writing project. I was so proud of it. I thought it was one of my best. When I shared it with you at the hospital, you shrugged and told me it was missing something. I was so disappointed that you didn’t like it. I couldn’t believe it. 

I became determined to improve it. When I went home, I worked on it for hours, editing it to make it better. Expanding my ideas so it was more thoughtful writing. When I went to visit you a few days later, you read my revised version, and told me you loved it. I was so happy. Not only did you compliment my writing, and make me feel good about my talents, you pushed me to be even better. You made me work hard to be the best I could be. I will never stop trying my hardest to do my best because I know that’s what you would have wanted me to do.

 I wish you could have read every single essay I will ever write, but I know I can’t be so lucky. I will never forget everything you taught me, and I will think of you every time I write. You will be able to live through my writing.”

I reflected on how effective my mom was with her criticism and believe that there is a sincere and strict scale for this process.  On the left side of the scale:

  • Rebuke
  • Criticize
  • Listen

They are all based on connections with the mind.

However, each of these could have emotional balancing elements of the heart on the right side of the scale.

  • Rebuke ….     with respect
  • Criticize ….     with compassion
  • Listen …      with love

I believe that the ears open when the love of the heart is connected with intention of the mind.

If the criticized party does not truly feel the love of the advisor, the advice may fall on deaf ears… or worse – trigger a negative response.

Lucy knew and felt Nana’s years of compliments and consistent compassion, thus was receptive to her advice.

In her final moments, my mom was able to share lifelong advice and feedback – respectful rebukes and compassionate criticism. Her longtime dedication as a Nana to Lucy enabled her to be receptive with open mind, open ears, and open hearts.

May you and your loved ones find the promised land with respectful, compassionate, and loving criticism.

Further Reading:

You can find another fascinating article about giving and receiving constructive criticism here.