The Rebbe On Criticism Vs. Positive Reinforcement

Watch: What to do when you see a shortcoming in your spouse, child, friend, student or employee? Can we speak up without making others feel rejected? 

Does criticism work? Well intended or not, most psychologists concur that criticism is not effective in changing behavior. Instead, criticism generates anger and defensiveness. The communication and relationship between the two parties becomes strained. 

So, what to do when you see a shortcoming in your spouse, child, friend, student or employee? Can we speak up without making others feel rejected? 


The month of Elul is the season when rabbis begin giving sermons to prepare their congregants for the High Holidays. Some mistakenly believe that angry criticism in public is the ideal technique to educate and inspire. This route is not in line with the Torah’s approach.

Elul is the month when Moshe Rabbeinu went up on Mount Sinai to beg for mercy for the Jewish people following the sin of the Golden Calf. With his words, Moshe was able to appease G-d and effect forgiveness for the transgressors. Especially during Elul, it is a time to speak with compassion and positivity towards our fellow Jews. 

While rebuking is a mitzvah through which we show care for the spiritual state of our fellow and alert him about what must be fixed, we can effect this change with a sensitive, loving approach.
According to Jewish law, criticism should be given discreetly, not publicly or with rage.  

R’ Zushe of Anipoli was a Chassidic master and student of the Maggid of Mezritch. He was known for his positive, loving approach to life and to others. When R’ Zushe saw a flaw in his fellow that needed to be fixed, he stood nearby and cried about himself, “Zushe committed such-and-such sin.” The wrongdoer overheard his words and received the reproval indirectly, without feeling shamed.  

Another successful strategy is positive reinforcement. Communicating the rewards and benefits of the desired good behavior is more effective than highlighting the mistakes. 

When criticism is in order, consider conveying your words calmly, and without embarrassing the listener. Focus on the positive outcomes of the actions you’d like to see. 

You may begin to notice a change, and all parties are still smiling. It’s the power of the Elul approach. 

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