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DEALING WITH SUBTLE FORMS OF CRITICISM

If you have been following this blog, you know that from time to time I have been discussing insults and criticism.  In earlier posts, we looked at situations in which people end up feeling insulted because someone provided negative criticism.

peanuts opium

dilbert criticism 1

I have argued that rather than to feel insulted, it is possible to learn to welcome criticism, as well as words that might come off as insulting.  When we learn to respond skillfully to negative criticism and insults, we develop a confidence in these types of situations.  This dramatically reduces our defensiveness.

An important step toward mastering this skill is to learn to clearly recognize when criticism is occurring.  If you can’t identify when a red light is flashing, you won’t be able to know when to apply the brakes on the car, and you are likely to end up in a serious accident.

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

Similarly, if you can’t identify when criticism is occurring, you won’t be able to know when to begin to put in place the plans that effectively deal with criticism.

male criticismfemale-criticsm

Although some forms of criticism are as easy to recognize as a red light, some forms of criticism are far more subtle and therefore often go unrecognized as criticism.  I therefore have presented posts that discuss direct and implied forms of criticism.  I’ve noted that when someone makes a suggestion, this usually implies some negative criticism.

Subtle 3I also explained how recommending education also usually implies some negative criticism.

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

We also took a good hard look at certain forms of levity, in which negative criticism is designed to be charmingly provocative.  It seeks to get people to think more deeply about an issue.  As George Bernard Shaw put it in his provocative book, Back to Methuselah:

George Bernard Shaw 2“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.”
Shaw, to ward off defensive reactions to his quips, often created fictional plays and had the characters in the plays say them.  Great examples are:
“No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.
“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Today we will spend a little more time practicing enhancing our skills for recognizing subtle forms of criticism.  This will help to improve our ability to know when to start using our dealing-with-criticism skills.

More Examples of Subtle Forms of Negative Criticism

As we move forward, please keep in mind that for the purposes of this blog, if someone evaluates something as negative the evaluator has made a negative criticism.

FIRST EXAMPLE

subtle 1In the above Calvin and Hobbes scenario, Miss Wormwood politely asks Calvin to put his tiger, Hobbes, in his locker.  Calvin objects to this request by crying out—“In my locker?!  He’ll suffocate!”

Calvin’s response to Miss Wormwood’s request is an example of indirect negative criticism.  He doesn’t directly state he has evaluated her request and found that there is something wrong with it, or that it is bad, or something of that sort.  Nevertheless, he indicates that if he did what she asked, his tiger would suffocate.  To recognize this as a form of negative criticism, it helps to notice that in addition to Calvin’s statement there are other indications that he thinks there is something wrong with Miss Wormwood’s request.  The exclamation marks after Calvin’s statement, the drawing of Calvin with his mouth being wide open as if he is shouting, and the fact that he is practically flying out of his seat while he is shouting, all add up to indicate that Calvin’s reply is rightfully classified as a form of negative criticism of Miss Wormwood’s request.

Although Miss Wormwood takes Calvin’s negative criticism in stride, other teachers might become defensive, and yell something like, “Don’t you talk back to me, young man!”  This might silence students, but leave them seething with anger that is expressed by a rejection of the school enterprise; or it might lead to shouting back at the teacher, creating an escalation of conflict that takes valuable learning time away from the class.

If Miss Wormwood would have become defensive and started to yell at Calvin in response to his negative criticism, this would, according the the DIG Conflict Model, be rated an immature level of responding (see Responding to Criticism: Four Levels of Maturity). Instead, she steers in the direction of Calvin’s criticism by offering the compromise of putting his “tiger” under his desk where it will be at least out of the way.  This, according to the DIG Conflict Model, is one of the most mature responses (see Responding to Criticism: The Most Mature Level).  We see, in this example, that Calvin quickly complies and his teacher can now go on with her lesson without any further delay.

SECOND EXAMPLE

Here’s a Sally Forth comic that illustrates that whenever there is a transaction involving a request or demand, we would be wise to anticipate negative criticism will be present as well.

Subtle 2In this comic, because Sally is visiting her mother for a few days, Ted is left on his own to deal with his nine-year-old daughter, Hil.  When Ted tells Hil it’s time for bed, she begins to reject his demand.  Is Hil’s rejection of the demand a form of criticism?

Well, consider her reply to her dad:  “But Mom’s not here!  We don’t need a bedtime!”  Hil has negatively evaluated her dad’s demand by expressing her disagreement with it.  If you tell someone you disagree with what he or she has done, you have negatively criticized the person’s act.

If Ted was skillful at first recognizing that Hil was providing him criticism, he would be in a better position to say to himself, “From what I’ve learned about the different levels of maturity, let me see if I can design a mature response.”  What if he came up with something like this?

“Hil, I admire the way you seek to defend your freedom.  I want to encourage that.  And you know I’m crazy about you.  At the same time, I also love your mom, as I know you do. It seems to me that we don’t want to break her rules behind her back.  The bedtime schedule is designed for you to get enough rest so you will do well in school.  Both of us have seen what happens to you when you don’t get enough rest.  When your mom gets home, if you want to discuss the rules, we can do it with her, you and me all altogether.  That would be the fair thing to do, wouldn’t it?”

These Examples are Designed to Encourage Deeper Thought

Above, I provided two examples of someone providing negative criticism.  For each example, a response was described that I think is pretty mature.   Please note, however, that I am NOT claiming that they are the ideal responses.  Nor am I trying to make the case that the responses portrayed in the above examples are the only mature responses that can be made.  There is a great deal of flexibility that we have for coming up with high level responses.  I present the above examples in an effort to challenge you to think more deeply about what mature levels of responding look like according to your own lights.

Well, that’s my post for this week.  To all of you who celebrate the beautiful Christmas season, I wish you good cheer, peace on Earth, and good will toward all of our fellow human beings!

With Warmest Regards,

Jeff

———————
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.

THE ART OF PLAYFUL TEASING
PROVIDING POSITIVE CRITICISM: THREE LEVELS OF MATURITY

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

7 Comments

  1. We dream of things that never were and say: “Why not?” | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"
    December 23, 2013 - 9:31 pm

  2. Hi Vladrenaissance. Much thanks for your kind words.

  3. Hey there…really practicing the art of understanding when criticism is arising is is so important. Very few of us think of it as a skill, but if you can learn to notice when it is present, then that awareness can allow you to act so much more maturely…so many of us act without thinking when we’re feeling insulted and this can lead us into a great deal of trouble. Subtle criticism is an interesting topic because I think it encourages us all to be more on the look out for criticism delivered in forms we don’t always recognize it in.. Thank you!

  4. It is kind of you, JSR, to take the time to provide your reaction to my post. Much thanks for the feedback.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post, Jeff. I think this would make an excellent topic for my radio show, Anger 911. Would you be interested in being a guest on my show? It’s a globally syndicated internet show (hosted by W4CY Radio, syndicated on Clearchannel iHeart Radio). If so, send me an email at Janet@anger911.net. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Janet Pfeiffer,
      It’s an honor to hear from you. Looking forward to being a guest on your fine radio program.
      Jeff

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