Miriam thought she was being brilliant: "I finally learned that's it's important to ask for what you want. After all, your spouse isn't a mind-reader. I now just speak up and say what's on my mind. I'm not abusive or anything like that – I just say what's troubling me and ask nicely for what I need."

"That sounds great," replied Dr. Cohen, Miriam's marriage counselor. "How's it working for you?"

"Terribly!" admitted Miriam. "It's supposed to work! Why isn't it working? Just yesterday, for example, my husband finally washed the dishes without me asking him to. When I saw they were done I thanked him profusely. But they weren't exactly sparkling clean. Some had food crumbs on them and others had soap suds on them because he hadn't rinsed them properly. So I just said, 'Honey, next time could you please use the hot water and scrubber brush and make sure to give them a good rinse?' And do you know what he said? He blew up! He started yelling at me: 'That will be the last time I do any dishes around here! Do them yourself!!' I don't get it. What did I do wrong? I just asked him for what I want!

Miriam's mistake is a common one. She innocently assumed that making a simple request would be harmless. In reality, requests can be taken as hurtful criticism when they are given at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Indeed, that is just how Miriam's husband took her request.

Let's look at what Miriam actually said to her husband:

"Thank you for doing the dishes without me even asking! That's fantastic! I'm thrilled! Thank you SO MUCH! And Honey, next time could you please use the hot water and scrubber brush and make sure to give them a good rinse?"

Now let's look at the problems with this communication:

  • Miriam combined praise and criticism in one sentence. Whenever we do that, the praise will be drowned out by the "latency effect" – the power of the last words that are heard – the critical, complaining words. It's as if the praise never happened.
  • The "request" is actually a complaint. It's as if Miriam had said, "You didn't do a good job" or "You didn't do it right." This is what her husband heard. The actual words she used were drowned out by the non-verbal communication: "good, but not good enough."
  • While Miriam's husband had been trying to do something nice for his wife and had expected only positive feedback, he got "slapped" with an implicit reprimand. This was really hurtful for him and he lashed out impulsively due to the pain he experienced. Miriam did not consider what he might have been feeling when he did those dishes and what he would feel if she corrected him.

But what is Miriam to do? She wants her husband to do the dishes, but she wants him to do an adequate job. It doesn't really help her much if she has to re-wash everything he touched.

When we want someone to change their behavior or actions, we need to "plan our attack." Asking for change always causes a bit of pain, because it contains the implicit message that what we're doing right now isn't right or good or good enough. Therefore, the Torah advises us to be very careful when admonishing or correcting anyone and to not sin in the act of correcting – that is, as it is written, "do not hurt another person's feelings with words."

Here are some steps that Miriam (and the rest of us) can use to offer more productive criticism:

  • Separate praise from criticism. Don't put them in the same sentence.
  • Choose the best time for criticism. Don't criticize right after someone has done something good.
  • Try to correct WITHOUT using any criticism whatsoever. Always try the CLeaR Method first – Comment, Label, Reward. For instance, Miriam could have picked out one clean dish and said "Look how clean and shiny this is!"(Comment). "You're a great dishwasher!" (Label). "And to show you my appreciation, let me get you a bowl of that new Rocky Road ice cream I just bought" (Reward). All of this positive feedback would help her husband become a better dishwasher than any amount of criticism would ever accomplish.
  • If after using the CLeaR Method more change is required, criticism can be employed carefully. The "sandwich method" is recommended: praise, correction, praise. The correction should be made some time later on, preferably days after the original praise was offered. It might sound like this: "You know how you did those dishes last week? I'm still thinking about how nice that was. Could I just put in a little request? Most of the dishes were great but there was a bit of soap and food on one or two – I think hotter water and that new scrub brush probably would take care of it. And you know, I can't tell you how pleased I was by what you did. You're so sweet!"

There are no guarantees that feelings won't be hurt, because some people are just very sensitive, but using these strategies can help reduce the pain of correction. Try them in your home and see how your spouse reacts.