Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist Dr. Liz Hale helps us end the struggle amidst the strife of negativity.
We often here that nothing is as certain as death and taxes…but you may as well add “criticism:” to the list! It seems inevitable if we associate with anyone; whether at home or at work.
Conflict and criticism is inevitable when people come together through common activities or goals and see things through their individual lenses. Conflict and intimacy go hand-in-hand; it’s not a bad thing at all. As a matter of fact, it’s necessary for close, high-quality relationships. No matter what side you’re on, the giving or the receiving, it’s how you express your position that determines your effectiveness in connecting with others. Complaints can be difficult to hear and to say…but they are worth the work because they bring us to a greater understanding of each other and they allow us to resolve problems.
Criticism and complaints come with little notice. The neighbor knocks on the door, your boss approaches your cubicle, or your spouse says, “we need to talk.” The adrenalin starts pumping much like it does before a big race; there isn’t much time so we need to practice ‘ready, set, go’ to our advantage. Use these 3 quick steps to prepare for connection, not contention.
Prepare yourself to receive criticism with confidence. A complaint or a criticism is someone’s opinion that they want to share with you. This neutral definition doesn’t determine that the opinion is right, or that it’s the only one, or must be acted upon immediately. If you can accept this definition, you are half-way to welcoming criticism. Get curious; not furious.
This person is coming to me – that takes a lot of effort and time. I could choose to be flattered by their attention and desire to improve a situation. Their opinion helps me to understand them better and see how they view the world, including how they perceive me.
We all have blind-spots; this person could be right…I want to hear what they have to say, especially when I remember that this is one opinion. But again, that opinion could be correct! So now I’m starting to feel a bit more excited and curious; not so anxious.
Set yourself outside yourself…dissociate. If you are highly sensitive to criticism, and many of us are, remove yourself by imagining placing yourself in the other person’s shoes; or as a bug on the wall; or in the audience of a movie theater watching the scene between you and another person unfold on the screen above you. Hear carnival music in the background; imagine yourself in the future at age 95 and look back at your younger self being criticized. Instead of hearing your boss’s criticisms, see the words being printed on a page so they are more palatable.
Some clients mentally ready themselves by imagining placing their ego in a cushioned box on a top closest shelf during the feedback session; others imagine a safe, firm protection around their heart that allows them to hear anything without it causing much of a sting. Rituals and mental exercises can be powerful! Now you are ready to evaluate the criticism with your mind not your heart.
Go with the feedback. No interruptions; no defensiveness; keep breathing….hear your critic out. Taking notes can be useful. It helps one stay unemotional and analytical while showing the other party that you are listening and taking the situation seriously.
The most effective strategy for handling valid criticism is to agree with it. Our agreement will surprise and defuse faultfinders who might be looking for an argument or wanting to elevate themselves, reaffirming that you really are the one with this big problem. You may even want to ask for help: “You’re right. I seem to have foot-in-mouth disease…how do you suggest I overcome this?” Being open to a suggestion helps your critic, who is really trying to help anyway, become a member of your self-improvement team. Close a conversation with, “thank you for sharing that with me…I’m going to really think about this,” or I’m going to develop a plan of action and I’ll run it by you later on today.”
Ambiguous criticism is the hardest to deal with it seems; not really understanding or seeing things the same as the other person. Here are a few “quick tips” to deal with that scenario.
Get Curious, Not Furious
Unclear criticisms needs more information. This is often why we feel the impulse to attack back; because we don’t always trust the sender. They may have ulterior motives and are just looking for a place to find fault. Ask a series of questions. You might say, “I need more information here so I can really understand things from your perspective. Could you tell me exactly when I seemed uncooperative? What would you have liked me to say or do differently? What could I have done to come across better?
Hear the Longing
Hear underneath the words. When a partner says to you, “You never call me during the day. You never send card or flowers like you used to….you are so self-centered!” Now, this is not an effective way of complaining granted…but sometimes the other fails to deliver it “correctly.” Your job now as a partner, regardless of the set-up, is to stay out of the content and hear the longing underneath the complaint. What is your partner longing for here? More time; more attention; they are feeling unloved and unnoticed. While I can’t make someone happy, I do have a responsibility to treat them in away that that I’m most proud of. They could be right; my time and attention has been more on work then on the one person I’m doing all this work for to begin with! Mt partner is right here. I’m going to make changes that beings about more happiness for both of us!
24-Hour Criticism-Free Zone
To gain insight into your own level and style of criticism, for a period of 24 consecutive ours, refrain from criticizing anything, anyone; even yourself. When you slip, you start the 24-hour period all over again. This is to easy…but not impossible either. What an eye-opener! I gave this assignment to a couple once and the woman said, “All right…for 24-hours I try not to criticize or dwell on a critical thought…” and then pointing to her husband, said, “But he will never make it!!” Needless to say, she had to start over a few times! But she made it and recognized just how natural and damaging criticism had become in their relationship. Keep a check on criticism.
“The Art of Giving and Receiving Criticism, “by John Lund, Ed. D.
“The Relationship Cure,” by John Gottman, Ph.D.
Dr. Liz Hale is a licensed clinical psychologist and a regular Studio 5 Contributor. Your comments and questions are welcomed! Please visit www.drlizhale.com to add your thoughts to today’s discussion or learn more about her private practice.