When a ‘critical conversation’ turns nasty!

The more you care about an issue – the critical dialogue of ‘feedback’

“Your son is no good,  I don’t think he will pass”  said my son’s math teacher to my wife and that too in front of the whole class.  This incident I recall happened when he was in 9th grade.  My wife had gone to school concerned that our son was losing both interest and confidence in math.  She thought it will be a great idea to discuss with his teacher and understand what exactly was going wrong.

Now the teacher’s statement brought her to a boil as this dialogue turned critical.  She was furious and hit back with great force.  “I think you are no good as a teacher.  You don’t know how to teach and are blaming the kids for your failure.  I wonder how you even became a teacher.  You don’t deserve to teach”.


She came back home furious and at the same time feeling victorious that she could hit back and hurt the teacher more than what the teacher had caused to our son.

When she came back and narrated this incident to me, I could sense that her emotions had gotten the better of her and she forgot in the process to find out the real problem my son was facing in school.  I didn’t blame her for that though, as I understood that our son’s academic progress was an issue very dear to her.

She wanted me to accompany her the next day and confront this rogue teacher as she would like to call her and give her a piece of my mind as well.  It was almost like she was goading me to hit with greater force.  I realized that the whole transaction was becoming unsafe for all parties.  A simple ‘feedback giving and receiving’ process had turned ugly.  People had started to pass judgments and conclusions instead of working with facts.  It was ‘the critical dialogue’ which I thought would give an opportunity to clear the air and get the whole process to a meaningful conversation.  I’ve been teaching ‘feedback’ process in organizations and felt that it is such a wonderful skill to improve the quality of any interpersonal relationship.  Wanted to give a shot.  Here is what I did.

Collection of facts – I asked my son as to what makes him hate math?  What was happening to him at school?  And so on.  I understood that it was not ‘math’ per se which was his problem.  His issue was with the teacher, who used to blame students in front of the whole class and pass judgments which hurt students quite a bit.  Some students chose to keep quite but my son preferred to discuss it with us and wanted to resolve it as well.  He wanted us to tell his teacher to stop criticizing him and other students in front of the whole class.  Here was an opportunity to provide feedback to the teacher concerned.

I made it the next day and this is how the conversation flowed.

Making it safe for the ‘feedback receiver’  “When I first heard your opinion about my son, my initial reaction was of anger and I really wanted to hit out and oppose you.  But after thinking about it, I’ve realized that there is more I can learn from you about my son’s progress.  I know that you care a great deal about my son and I’m confident you are well-trained.  I know you want to do best for my son and I do too. I have some fears and concerns which I feel will have huge implications for him in the future. Is it ok if I share that with you and we could together look at it objectively?

This created an environment of safety for the teacher to reply “I really feel that he has great potential and even I would want him to do well”

You notice that ‘the critical dialogue’ has turned towards a meaningful conversation the moment I created a safe environment.

The next steps are pretty straight forward in ‘giving  feedback’.

Step 1: State the facts (they can’t be denied)  “I observed that you have been critical of my son in front of the whole class”

Step 2: State the impact (results of such actions / behaviors) “He is unable to concentrate in the class due to the constant fear of being reprimanded in front of the whole class”

Step 3: State the feeling (good/bad/happy/unhappy) “I am feeling concerned about how this is impacting his self-esteem”

Step 4: State what your expectations are “I would have expected that you had a private 1:1 conversation with my son to give him your critical feedback.  Is it ok for me to expect this from you? (talking tentatively will keep the conversation in the ‘safe zone’).  It’s my son’s expectation too.

Interesting fact I learnt:  The teacher was of the opinion that if she criticized my son in front of the whole class, he would be angry and motivated to better.  Now I knew where she was coming from.

Step 5: Use ‘opinion’ instead of advice “In my opinion a 1:1 would have made it easier for him to accept your valuable feedback” (an opinion is easier for people to digest as they feel less threatened and also know that as much as you have your opinion, they would too.)

Happy ending the concerned teacher accepted the feedback and agreed that she was probably wrong in assuming that all students would respond to her techniques in the same way.  She promised to have more 1:1 with my son and help him progress.

This critical dialogue went a long way, so much so that my son not just started to like math but did well to get a perfect score in his boards and a national merit certificate for his performance in math.

When we care for an issue or feel strongly about the subject, we might not be able to demonstrate our best behavior.


  • Tend to sulk
  • Get angry and violent
  • We become pushy and hurt others
  • Start to exaggerate our stories
  • Make villains of others
  • Violate their rights
  • Stop listening
  • Retaliate
  • Insult
  • Become sarcastic
  • Become judgmental

If we can step out of ourselves and start to have a dialogue only based on facts, it becomes so much easier for any ‘critical dialogue’ to become meaningful.

There are so many situations where we have the need to use ‘feedback’ as part of a critical dialogue process.  In office, with spouse, with children, colleagues and many more.  If we can use the steps as I have outlined above, we might have a chance.


Leave a Reply