Criticizing with care

Nathan Warren

How can you convince a racist uncle or homophobic coworker to change their views?

We all sometimes meet people with outdated opinions or ways of speaking. For many people, the first instinct is to tell the person that their beliefs are wrong. Saying things like, “Uncle Bjørn, you are being racist when you complain about public celebrations of Eid.”

While telling people they are wrong can feel good, it generally fails to persuade them to change their beliefs. Instead, it often causes backlash, wherein criticized people attack their critics and become more convinced that their personal (homophobic, racist, etc.) beliefs are good and correct.

One strategy to prevent backlash is to say nice things about the problematic person, saying things like, “Uncle Bjørn, I think you are a good person, but you are being racist when you complain about public celebrations of Eid.” This strategy can reduce backlash, but it often fails to persuade people to change their minds.

In a new paper, my colleagues and I find that criticism is more persuasive when it is expressed with concern for the issues faced by the group or person being criticized.

For example, try telling Uncle Bjørn, “I understand that you are concerned that increased immigration is changing traditional Norwegian culture, but you are being racist when you complain about public celebrations of Eid.”

Interestingly, the statement of concern can be completely unrelated to the problematic behavior. For example, you could tell Uncle Bjørn, “I know that the new tax law is bad for your economy, but you are being racist when you complain about public celebrations of Eid.”

Dual Concern Messages Demonstrate Moral Concern

Across a series of studies with more than 1,400 participants, we find that “dual concern messages,” which pair a criticism with a statement recognizing the issues that the criticized group faces, are more persuasive than other forms of critical messages.

When people feel criticized, their first instinct is to be defensive – nobody wants to feel like a bad person. Criticized people think, ‘this person criticizing me doesn’t understand or care about me or my problems. Why should I pay attention to them?’

When a critic recognizes those problems, for example by expressing concern for the challenges of Uncle Bjørn’s generation, the criticized person feels like the critic cares about them, and therefore can be persuaded by the message.

In one study, Liberals and Conservatives in the USA read about a politically independent CEO who criticized their political group, for example by saying, “Modern liberal ideology is hurting different groups of Americans. Liberals really need to reconsider some of their policies.”

Half the participants also read that the CEO expressed concern for their group, for example by saying, “Liberals, like anyone, deserve a voice, and their concerns should be heard.”

Compared to people who only read the criticism, Liberal and Conservative participants who read the dual concern message were 6.6% more likely to agree with the CEO’s criticism and 7.1% more likely to shop at his store.

Learning to Criticize with Care

What this research shows is that persuasion works best when the person you are trying to persuade believes you care about their difficulties and wellbeing.

Whether you are trying to convince Uncle Bjørn to update his views, fellow Norwegians that the EU is good (or bad!), or to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a key first step in persuading the other side is recognizing the problems they face, instead of just focusing on the problems they are creating.


Howe, Lauren C., et al. "Expressing Dual Concern in Criticism for Wrongdoing: The Persuasive Power of Criticizing with Care." Journal of Business Ethics (2023): 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-023-05475-0 


Published 1. November 2023

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