Coach or Critic

Are You a Critic … or a Coach?

Have you ever noticed what happens when children run around, and the adults wish they would stop? Think for a minute. What does almost every adult within earshot yell out?


Am I right? Yeah, you know I am.

Does it work? Do the kids stop running? No. Mostly they keep right on running. Then the adults get upset because they think the kids are disobeying them, when in fact, the kids are doing exactly what they were told to do.

What is the last word they heard? Running! Run! So they do what they hear. And we all do that. We humans respond very strongly to action words — verbs. It’s how we’re wired.

You don’t believe me? OK, think of this. You’re in an airplane that just hit some turbulence. You and all the other passengers are valiantly trying to pretend it was nothing much. You’re sucking it up, you’re looking around to see how others are doing, and you’re breathing carefully.

And you’re doing a fine job until someone yells out . . .


Suddenly you have a plane full of very scared passengers! The wrong word was used, and nearly everyone is responding with heightened fear, faster heartbeats, and a racing pulse.

And no, the flight attendants would never say that. They always tell us to stay seated, fasten our seat belts, and remain calm. They know the value of helping us never even think of that word. They need our brains to work, not to seize up in fear.

So, what to do about the kids running or jumping or whatever the action is that you don’t want? How about this. How about we get in the habit of telling them what we want instead of what we don’t want. Would that work?

I saw this happen years ago at a hotel swimming pool, where several kids were running around (dangerous in that situation), and every time they did, a young woman would call out


I watched in amazement as the kids stopped as though they’d hit a wall. Of course, kids being kids, after a while they started to run again. But each time, she merely called out the same instruction — “Remember to walk slowly, please!” And they did. Magic!

Even though I heard what she said, it didn’t really register until I spoke with her. She explained she was a second grade teacher, and she had learned — as so many others had — that kids do better when the words used match the desired action. So instead of telling them not to run, she tells them to walk slowly. Instead of telling them to stop talking, she asks them to listen to her (give her their ears). Instead of telling them not to make a mess, she tells them to keep things together neatly.

So simple and just plain brilliant.

When we’re correcting, we’re often really criticizing, right? We’re saying that the other person is doing something wrong. Do we criticize with a soft, loving voice? Hardly. I think our voice from the beginning will have an edge that the other person can hear. And once we start criticizing, if we don’t get the desired result, our voice gets harsher. There’s not much good happening at that moment, is there?

But when we’re coaching, how do we sound? Yes. Nicer. Friendlier. We’re guiding, we’re gently shaping behavior, and we’re usually getting positive results. And I saw and heard this at that swimming pool. That young woman kept her voice friendly each time, and she got the result she wanted and needed. And everyone seemed to be having a really good time!

So the next time your child holds a glass and you want to make sure the glass doesn’t hit the floor . . . rather than “Don’t drop it!” try this: “Johnny, please hold the glass with both hands.”

By the way, this works with adults, too.

Have you used language this way? Tell us about it, please! 


Susan Rooks
Susan Rooks
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented. In April 2022, Susan became the Managing Editor of the Florida Specifier, a bi-monthly trade publication covering Florida’s diverse environmental industry. And although the focus is on Florida’s issues, many of these same challenges are found elsewhere around the world, so the readership isn’t limited to just Floridians or those interested in that state. But in all these endeavors, Susan’s only goal is to help everyone look and sound as smart as they are.

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  1. Oh my gosh, Susan, I’ve been transported back in time! When my son was an infant there was a group of new moms that would get together every month. I remember one of our speakers was talking about this exact same thing. She used the example of saying “Don’t pull the cat’s tail.” Which, of course, would only make your toddler want to pull the tail more. And oh…. how many times have I heard myself say, “Walking feet….!” LOL! Now that my son is 15, I have to think about whether I’m as vigilant with the way I frame my words… Thank you for bringing this to the forefront of my attention!