Back in April of last year, in a post titled, WHY IS CRITICISM SO HARD TO BEAR?, we began to discuss the fact that when we provide negative criticism to others, they may feel insulted, they may feel that you feel they are not worthy of being liked, and they may feel that you are trying to push them to make some change that is right only for them to freely decide. They, therefore, may become defensive and their anger may become destructive.
Of course, it is not enough to just know that the desire to be liked and the desire to maintain freedom can lead to problems when we provide negative criticism–we also want to know what we can do to either prevent these problems or to resolve them when they come up. To develop these skills, I first presented a post titled PROVIDING NEGATIVE CRITICISM: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY. In later posts we began to look at a variety of very specific situations in which negative criticism is provided in a wise and helpful manner (see for example, DEALING WITH CRITICISM: LESSONS FROM DENNIS THE MENACE and DENNIS THE MENACE AND CRITICISM: AN ADVANCED LESSON).
In order to learn these skills at a level at which it becomes second nature even in emotionally arousing situations, from time to time I will be returning to this topic. By providing a wide range of examples over an extended period of time, readers will become better and better at applying these skills. To this end, today, we will look at some new situations in which the use of these skills are considered.
PRACTICE USING THE KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE DESIRE TO BE LIKED
There are many people who don’t like to receive negative criticism. Some people, therefore, insist that if you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say anything at all. And yet, there are occasions when the risk of starting a conflict because of providing negative criticism does makes sense.
Let’s say I like Marie, and it is pretty clear she likes me. But there is one thing Marie does that is making me feel like I want to end our relationship—when she criticizes me, she uses a very nasty tone that involves shouting, name calling, and glares.
In this example, Marie hasn’t asked me for my opinion, but I nevertheless decide that it’s worth a shot to confront her about the way she criticizes me because both of us may benefit from solving this problem. What might be a skillful way to go about providing her this negative criticism?
Knowing that when people are criticized it often brings up a “liking” conflict, I might present my comments by first trying to find a time when we are alone and she appears to be pretty open and relaxed. Criticizing someone who is already distressed with feelings of being unloved is unwise because they are very likely to resist hearing you out.
When I do find the right time, I might say, “Marie, I sure like you a lot. You’re smart, and most of the time you treat me in a very caring way that I really love. I am having difficulty with this one problem though. There are times I do something that you don’t like, and when you confront me, you do it in a tone that’s beginning to get to me.”
Notice how I began my comments by reassuring her that I like her. Then I gave her a few specific examples of what I like about her. This helps to fulfill her desire to be liked. Once this desire is fulfilled to some degree, it can potentially decrease the intensity of the conflict as we attempt to solve the problem.
Practice Using the Knowledge About the Desire to Maintain Freedom
Another approach to consider when we suspect someone might experience defensiveness when criticized is to empower the person who is the target of the criticism. Here’s an example:
“Hi Fred. Last time we got together we had quite an argument.”
“Yeah, you made some stupid suggestion.”
“I know you disagreed with it, Fred. I’ve been thinking a lot about these arguments. I think I get so into them that I start pushing you too hard to change your mind. It comes across as pushy and like I am getting in the way of your freedom to make your own decisions.”
“Yeah, it does come off as real pushy. You don’t know when to back off!”
“I understand. Well, I really value our friendship so I want to change that. I’d like to set up a couple of rules that I’m willing to agree to follow from now on. First, if I bring up a topic you don’t want to talk about, I’d like you to tell me you don’t want to talk about it. I promise I’ll silence myself immediately. Second, if we start getting into a discussion, at any point you have had enough, just say, “Enough!” and that will signal to me to drop the topic. Do you think that might help us to get along a little better?”
“Well, if you really do drop the topic when I tell you, it could help.”
“I’m determined to stick to my promise. If I can’t, it will be my fault. I’m sorry for being so pushy in the past.”
Notice how this plan puts at least some of the responsibility for the unwanted arguments between Fred and myself squarely on my shoulders. It also gives some power to Fred. It makes it clear to Fred that he now has a way to get me to back off when he no longer wants to engage. Also, I agree to follow these rules and admit that if I don’t follow them the fault rests with me.
Of course, if Fred were to signal to me that he wanted to drop a topic by using angry shouting, I might seek to change our plan a bit. I could explain to Fred that I have a hard time dealing with someone shouting at me. Then I can ask him to signal me to drop a topic by using some silent signal like a palm down wave of his hand. We call this “a silent back-off signal.”
The skill to empower those who have a tendency to become defensive when criticized is a powerful tool. It avoids unnecessary conflicts about freedom.
It Can be Challenging to Learn these Types of Skills to Deal with Criticism
It’s interesting that some people, even when they realize that providing criticism at a given point in time is not the best thing to be doing, have a hard time refraining.
In the above Sally Forth comic, Sally seems to desire to be helpful and yet she does something she knows will not be helpful. This one incident doesn’t mean she will never be able to make the change that makes sense to her. Sometimes we have to work on making changes over a period of time.
Seeing ourselves make mistakes while we are trying to make a change may lead to criticizing ourselves. In the following Luann comic, notice that Toni calls her mouth stupid while she criticizes herself.
Most of us desire to like ourselves. To feel the blues deeply while knowing that mistakes are part of the learning process is a different bluesy feeling than the feeling we get when we think a mistake means we are unchangeably bad. The “learning” bluesy feeling is more hopeful. Learning to be kind to yourself when you make a mistake is an important step in learning to be kind to others when you see them make mistakes.
Today we practiced using the knowledge about two major reasons why providing negative criticism can be difficult. The two major reasons are:
- Many people associate criticism with not being liked.
- Many people associate criticism with an attempt to reduce their freedom to make their own decisions.
Once we begin to recognize these types of conflicts, we are in a better position to come up with plans to either resolve them or to lower their intensity. If we like the person whom we are about to criticize, providing reassurance about our esteem, using some specific examples of what we like about the person, is a valuable skill to learn. For people who tend to get defensive when criticized, suggesting the use of a “silent back-off signal” can empower them to deal more effectively with criticism. To learn these skills so they can be used even during trying times takes time. Learning to be kind to yourself when you make a mistake along the way is an important step in learning to be kind to others when you see them make mistakes.
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 and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.