How do you criticize something without being a jerk?

The Criticism Ratio

Researchers found out that happy couples gave each other on average 5 compliments for every criticism.
Researchers found out that happy couples gave each other on average 5 compliments for every criticism.

You are a diplomatic criticizer. Constructive. Fair, for the most part. But, if you criticize too often, tact is irrelevant. There is a "magic ratio" in any relationship, and if the scale labeled "snarky comments" far outweighs the one labeled "compliments and encouragement," your criticism is definitely out of balance [source: Poulsen].

What exactly, is the magic balance that makes criticism more effective and less jerk-like? That's exactly what researchers sought to discover when they studied 60 leadership teams at a data-processing company. The effectiveness of the teams, measured by a metric of customer satisfaction ratings, feedback from other team members and financial performance, hinged on a ratio of positive-versus-negative comments and criticisms.

The top-performing teams all had one thing in common: For every criticism, the team's members volleyed at least five positive comments.

This ratio is as true for interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, as it is for professional relationships. Research that analyzed married couples success rates finds the largest indicator of whether a couple will stay wed is not religion, shared values or children. It's the ratio of criticism to compliments. Couples who make five positive comments for every negative comment are more likely to stick it out. And the couples who eventually divorce? The ratio was nearly equal: three positive comments for every four negative comments.

So is the goal to refrain from criticism? Absolutely not. It's an essential ingredient in achieving success in relationships, whether at home or at work. Criticism gets our attention. It shakes us out of complacency. It can even fuel our success.

But the behavior-changing elements of criticism are not enough to sustain. We need positive encouragement, too. It motivates us to continue on, work harder and try more. Criticism, it turns out, is just one side of the coin. We need a carrot and a stick. Or, more accurately, five carrots for every stick [source: Zenger and Folkman].