“In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.”
 – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Have you ever been on the wrong end of an unwanted question, such as “Will you marry me?” Or something less serious, such as, “Hey, can you do me a huge favor?”

If the answer is “no,” there is going to be a “but” somewhere in that sentence, such as, “You’re such a great guy, but I’m just not in love with you.” Or, “I’d love to help you out, but I have to do my colonoscopy prep that night.”

And no matter how nice or apologetic or convincing the first part of the sentence is, for the listener, it’s only what comes after the “but” that matters because that’s where the truth of the message lies.

And so, it’s hard to believe—but—this one innocuous word is responsible for the downfall of the generation that left Egypt. And it caused them to be condemned to die in the desert.

If you don’t know the story, the Jewish people had just left Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments and were poised to enter what was then known as the Land of the Canaanites. The people were nervous and didn’t know what they were up against, and so they asked Moses to appoint a group of men to go spy out the land.

After 40 days, the spies returned and issued a glowing report. “It’s a land filled with milk and honey. Here are its fruits.” And then they said the word efes (which means “but” in Hebrew), after which they painted such a negative picture of the land that people were scared and wept through the night, thus sealing their fate that not only would they not enter the land, but future calamities (such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples) would occur on the anniversary of that date.

The Weight of Criticism
We often mix compliments with criticisms and wonder why the listener is offended. I gave my son a compliment about his appearance, but I ended the sentence with criticism. “Mother giveth and Mother taketh away,” he said. And I was surprised. After all, I said something nice, too, so why the drama?

"I said something nice, too, so why the drama?"

Plain and simple, it’s what follows the “but” that counts. We can’t neutralize or offset a criticism with a compliment. It’s not an even wash because we don’t hear or care about the compliment. We may be wired to focus on negativity because the negative carries valuable information about possible danger.

Whatever the reason, a ratio of 1:1 (compliment/criticism) will destroy the quality of your relationships. So can we ever criticize? Of course, we can, and sometimes we must, but there are ways to do it without harming the relationship.

In a business setting, there is something called the “Losada Principle,” which tells us that unless a negative or critical remark is offset by at least three positive comments, the work environment is considered toxic, and employees will not thrive and be productive.

In personal relationships, the ratio is a bit higher. A critical or negative comment needs to be offset with 3:5 positive comments. Dip consistently below that ratio in your marriage and your relationship is in peril because you are statistically headed for a divorce.

“When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.” – Unknown

So here’s my advice:
  1. If you must say something critical (and sometimes, you must) make an effort to offset it with multiple positive remarks.
  2. If you must say two contradictory things, switch the order so that the nice comment follows the “but.” For example: “You did a great job cleaning your room, but the bathroom is a mess” versus “The bathroom is a mess, but you did a great job cleaning your room.” Do you hear the difference in those approaches?
  3. After you get the hang of that, try to stop talking after the compliment. “You did a great job cleaning your room.” Full stop. The bathroom is another conversation for another time. Don’t ruin the compliment.
  4. Don’t ruin the compliments you receive. When I get a compliment about a meal I prepared, for example, I often would deflect it with a “but,” such as “but the chicken is too dry.” Don’t diminish yourself and make the person giving you a compliment feel silly for doing so.
  5. And finally, consciously transform the “but” from “destructive” to “constructive.” “I hear that your teacher is a demanding perfectionist, but it’s going to make you up your game.” Or, “I don’t know how I can deal with this, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.” Use the “but” to focus on the positive aspect of a challenging situation.
Pay attention to the “but,” and infuse your relationships with conscious kindness and create a legacy of positivity.

Internalize & Actualize:
  1. Think about a recent argument you had. What could you have said differently that would have changed the outcome of that interaction? What can you say now to help rectify it?
  2. Think about someone you are likely to criticize. Now write down five positive attributes or compliments you could give that person that would be sincere. This week say one of those compliments daily and then write down any changes you notice from that person.
  3. The way we talk to ourselves is just as critical as the way we talk to other people. Using the 3:5 compliment per criticism ratio, write down something negative you often think or say to yourself. Then following that, write down 3:5 compliments you can give yourself (without a “but”) to help offset the damage from that negative statement.