For the past few weeks, I have been discussing the different reasons why people criticize and how to respond in a mature manner. To become a master at responding maturely, these mature responses have to be rehearsed. But even after a great deal of rehearsing, masters at responding to criticism occasionally find themselves becoming so angry at what is being said, that they have to call a time out. We discussed how to do this in a respectful manner in an earlier post titled SUMMARIZE AND DELAY.
But what is a wise course of action if your best efforts to summarize and delay is ignored by the criticizer and the criticisms just keep coming at a rate that is just too much for you to bear? Let’s take a look at a parable which points us to a strategy to deal with such a trying situation.
PARABLE OF MARTY AND LENA
One day Marty gets stuck at work. He calls his girlfriend, Lena, to let her know he will be late for their date.
When he finally arrives at Lena’s house, he’s already irritated about how his boss has treated him all day long and he finds himself becoming a little annoyed when Lena starts to raise her voice about how late he is. “I understand why you are upset,” Marty replies.
Lena then looks at Marty’s clothes and complains that he’s not wearing a tie.
“I didn’t think a tie was necessary for the party we’re going to,” Marty replies. “Next time we go to a party, I’ll check with you before I pick out my outfit.”
As they leave the house to go to the party, before getting into his car, Lena pauses. “You didn’t have your car washed, and you knew we were going to a party!” she complains. “It’s filthy.”
Marty now feels himself getting really angry. He had run out of time to have the car washed. To have stopped to get it washed before coming to Lena’s house would have made him even later than he was.
He takes a deep breath to try to calm himself, and then he begins to think about why Lena has been so negative with him. He has practiced going down the list of possibilities, and he quickly does so now.
Is she just offering criticism to me in an effort to get me to improve? he says to himself. There’s just too much criticism all at once for this to be the whole reason, he decides.
Is she just playfully teasing? She doesn’t look at all like this is any fun for her.
Is she trying to impress some friends so she can better bond with them? There’s no one around but she and I.
Is she in a bad mood about something? That has to be it, and I know why. She’s still angry because I was late.
“Lena,” he says, “I think you’re still angry because I was late.”
“Yes I am,” she hollers.
“I really wish I could have been on time, Lena. I had a very rough day at work, and now, in the last five minutes you criticized me three times—first, about my being late, then about not wearing a tie, and now, about not washing the car. Usually I’m very interested in your criticisms. But for the rest of the evening I’d like you to hold off on any more.”
“Don’t give me that!” Lena hollers. “You didn’t wash the lousy car! What’s wrong with you?!”
“Lena, I know you’re going to be disappointed, but I’ve just decided to spend the evening alone. I’ll call you in a few days and if you’re up to discussing what happened this evening, we’ll do it then. I’m sorry.” Then Marty gets into his car and drives away with Lena still yelling.
Notice that in this Marty and Lena parable, Marty first attempts to sail away from the Region of Anger by gently asking Lena to hold off on any more criticism for the rest of the evening. We will call this the “Signaling to Back-Off Technique.” Although this fails to work for Marty in this parable, the Signaling to Back-Off Technique has the potential to be highly effective. It works best in an ongoing relationship, although I have seen it work well with people who hardly know each other. The best way to set this up is to discuss this technique with the other person at a time when both of you are not in an angry mood. You might say to the other party something like:
Sometimes I begin to get really upset about something you are saying. I know that it’s important for me to hear your point of view, and I do want to hear what you have to say. But there are times when I’m in no condition to give you a fair hearing on a particular topic. At such times, it would help me a great deal if I could give you a simple signal for you to back off for a while. I’ll make sure you’ll get your opportunity to have your full say on a topic before too long—almost always within a week. But I sometimes require a little time to get my act together first. Would you mind helping me out in this way?
If the other party agrees to the Signaling to Back-Off Technique, and I have found that most people do, together you can decide on a signal. A friend might say something to another friend like, “Please give me a little time to think about this.” A wife might wish to use with her husband the phrase, “Darling, let’s discuss this later.” I know one couple who just uses the phrase, “Back off, please.” This strikes me as a bit abrupt, but it seems to work for them.
In the Marty and Lena parable, when Lena refuses to hold off on any more negative criticism for a while, Marty decides to leave rather than listening to any more insults.
Some people think that it is best to just start yelling at the criticizer to shut up already. This usually leads to an angry exchange and this can potentially clear the air. But sometimes some particularly awful things are said in the exchange and events escalate into violence or lasting resentments.
Whereas the quick shouting approach may work well for some people, others find that they sometimes reach a point at which they determine that it would be best to indeed call a time out. We do it in many sports for four reasons: To avoid events escalating into violence; to take some time to catch our breath; to think about what has just been happening; and to formulate a plan to go forward. It is for the same reasons why we call time outs in an anger arousing situation.
After you excuse yourself, what are valuable things that you can do to take advantage of your cooling down period? Next week’s post will begin to answer this question.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.