How Do You Criticize A Sensitive Person?


How do you criticize a sensitive person? The same way you snuggle up close to a porcupine…very carefully! In fact, constructive criticism needles the sensitive person to death. By nature, half of us are sensitive souls, or Empathizer (E-type) communicators. The other half of us are tough charging Instigator (I-type) communicators, who have very thick skins so needles don’t penetrate very far. For both communicator types, even well-intentioned negative feedback can pop the self-esteem balloon of our talk partner…and the resulting bang of a deflating ego will startle everyone in ear shot and across the state.


What to do if you have to quickly correct the behavior of the sensitive person?

1. APPROACH USING YOUR AWARD-WINNING 10 SECOND SMILE. In your interpersonal relationships, you are a powerful producer of positive results. People like to love you, and people love to like you! Right? So put your whole attention into a sincere smile that visually hugs your talk partner person. Now, don’t you buck me by saying, “Dennis, when you get old, you lose your hearing and your vision!”

2. BE TONE DEFT. Use a calm adult voice that is neutral and factual. Be tone deft, which means don’t use a critical parent voice that makes the listener turn the selective hearing on and become message deaf! The tone of your voice announces to the listener whether or not you’re angrily disapproving or blaming the person vs. blaming the problem. Use a soothing, even tone of voice, filled with positive expectations and trust, which tell your talk partner that your message is decent and fair.

3. ALWAYS USE YOUR TALK PARTNER’S FIRST NAME. I know you realize that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. It’s not what was logically said or intended that matters, but what your talk partner emotionally hears and believes about your intentions. Perception is everything! Emotional communication is always dicey, especially when the communication level of one talk partner is higher or lower than the other.

4. “IT’S NOTHING PERSONAL BECAUSE IT’S ONLY BUSINESS” IS ALWAYS PERSONAL. Simply put, even in business, critical feedback is experienced or felt as very personal. That’s why giving feedback is feared, and helpful feedback is often withheld. Worse yet, too often hidden in tasty morsels of constructive criticism are sharp shards of broken glass. The message heard: “Because you didn’t do this right, you’re not a very good person!” No, you shouldn’t try to sweeten the person up to shove some bad tasting medicine down his or her gullet, either.

5. NEVER, EVER, EVER CRITICIZE IN PUBLIC. You can correct negative behavior in public if you are the group leader, but whenever you rebuke or correct someone in public, it’s VERY risky business. When a talk partner loses face, your good intentions to help out can explode in your face and permanently blow up the relationship bridge.

6. ONLY DELIVER ONE CRITICISM AT A TIME. Start off with what’s working well, instead of dipping into a well of poisoned water. Reading the riot act or loudly bellowing out a long laundry list of complaints doesn’t work, either. But you already knew that…. Did I say you should stick to delivering one criticism? Yes, just one, because one criticism is hard enough to swallow!

7. TO PRAISE OR NOT TO PRAISE? Should you praise abundantly or sparingly? Well, it depends. Praise those who need it the most, typically your Empathizer or E-type team players…especially those who are the workhorses of your organization…and the front runners, often your Instigator or I-type leaders, who run on their own batteries, can be rewarded in tangible ways, perhaps with bonuses and other prizes of merit. Caveat: Some players feign being hurt to avoid the delivery of corrective feedback.

8. WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO TELL A PERSON EXACTLY WHAT TO DO? Well, why not? Be specific about the right way to do the task…ALWAYS. A clear goal or stated expectation of the intended or appreciated response behavior should also be personally demonstrated by work or family leaders.

9. SHOULD YOU SIT DOWN WITH THE PERSON AND TRY TO TALK? You find out what motivates a person through personal meetings when there isn’t a problem to discuss. But I don’t have time for hand holding, you say?! You don’t have time not to meet with a person in private meetings to get to know him or her. Personal meetings allow you to get the “feel” and “target focus” of where the person is heading. Your time is priceless and sends the message, “You’re an important person in my world.” You can’t build trust in a situation that is coerced or rushed.

10. SHOULD I CRITICIZE A PATTERN OF REPEATED FAILURES? Yes, but with careful planning. Corporate executive teams are just as mystified as the rest of us about how to give corrective feedback that doesn’t sting or start an ego war. Of course, repeated failures will disrupt a functioning team and turn it into a dysfunctional team. Corrective feedback of the neutral style, “Do this because it will work to better achieve your goal!” focuses on teaching the correct skill to be adopted. Too much is at stake for repeated failure, by anyone.


I know you don’t intend to criticize the person of the person. And I know people shouldn’t take the helpful things you’re saying so personally. But they do. Do you walk your talk, or is your talk a one-way street? The distinction of “helpful feedback” is often lost to all when a talk partner gets all honked off and blames you for being insensitive and not caring enough to understand how to drive sanely on the two-way communicator highway.


Let’s summarize your new talk tactics:

  • Know who you’re talking to a little more personally
  • Use your talk partner’s first name
  • Never make corrections in an ad hoc or off-the-cuff fashion when you are feeling irritated or frustrated
  • Criticism should be the exception…verbal praise or tangible rewards should be the rule
  • Demonstrate or role model the corrective behavior
  • Never sound like your mom or dad, who criticized you as a kid
  • Respect personal sensitivity … Empathizers have the keys to unlock doors
  • Understand that no one you know has a small ego
  • Keep your feedback to under one minute, and then change the subject
  • Be prepared. Plan your comments days in advance. Think through what you’re going to say. Realize that no one likes bad news.
  • Fear of ostracism makes your talk partner stuff cotton balls in his or her ears.
  • Know no one this decade is expert at giving corrective feedback … but you’re learning how to!
  • Keep your talk simple and business-like…all-ways.

It’s nothing personal? Sure enough. After all, it is nothing personal, it’s only business…but business is all-ways VERY personal.


Dr. Dennis O’Grady is a Dayton region relationship communications expert, inspirational keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and experienced couples and family counselor. For over 30 years, Dr. O’Grady has focused on improving effective communication among everyone, including in-love couples, at-work teams, corporate leaders, and their families. Dennis is the developer of the innovative results-driven Talk to MeĀ© effective leadership and teamwork communication system. His book on positive and effective interpersonal communication, Talk to Me: Communication Moves To Get Along with Anyone, is available at or at Amazon.

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