The destructive effect of criticism

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” –Buddha

All relationships have their moments.  Two people cannot live together without having differences of opinion from time to time.  When these differences of opinion arise, how they are handled can either escalate the situation or resolve it.  Criticism is the first of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ that were introduced last week.  Criticism is basically attacking the partner’s character instead of addressing the situation.  Judgment is an easy trap to fall into.  We often assume that we know why our partner is or isn’t doing something and believe that we need to let them know about it.  When we address an issue, the focus can either be on the behavior or the person.  It sounds like semantics to talk about the behavior or the person doing the behavior, but there is a significant difference.   When behavior is addressed, the person themselves are still okay and there is a behavior change that can happen. When the focus is on the person, it becomes a personal attack on their character, which implies that they are not okay.  This is criticism. There are often a lot of ‘always’ and ‘never’ words used in criticism.  It sounds like ‘You always leave your clothes on the floor!’ ‘Why don’t you ever say anything nice to me?’ or ‘You never do anything right!’  Criticism is saying that the person is somehow flawed and there is something wrong with them.

So, how can a partner’s behavior be addressed respectfully without attacking the person?  It is important to start out with the facts of the situation, without adding emotion.  ‘When this happened…’  Then state how it makes you feel.  This is where finding an appropriate emotion word is important.  There are hundreds of emotions that we can feel, but we usually limit our vocabulary to only three- happy, sad and angry.  Try to tune in and find which emotion or mixture of emotions you feel.  Did the behavior make you; upset, envious, frustrated, anxious, unheard, hurt, jealous, vulnerable, scared, etc…  The third step is to ask for what you would like.  ‘What I would like is….’  The final step is to ask if your partner is willing to honor that request.  If they are not, negotiate to find something that meets both of your needs.  For example, what would it be like to hear, “When I find your socks laying all over the house, I feel unappreciated.  What I would like is for you to put your socks in the laundry room.  Would you be able to do that?”  This statement addresses the behavior and is not a personal attack.  This sounds very different from, ‘You always leave your socks laying around the house!  Why can’t you ever put them in the laundry room?’

Patterns of behavior develop throughout a relationship.  If criticism is a frequent pattern of communication in your relationship, the first step is to recognize it.  Try experimenting with addressing the behavior using these four steps and see if the tone shifts.  Next week I will discuss the second ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ which is contempt.

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