Frequent and poorly delivered criticism is a breeder of conflict in relationships. Well intended or not, criticism can press your buttons and create a call-and-response pattern that’s none too pleasant.
There is a way to change that relationship pattern by responding differently to criticism.
A participant at one of my recent conflict resolution workshops – I’ll call her Bev – approached me afterward to ask my advice about responding to criticism. Bev and her husband are in a conflict dance that will feel familiar to some of you. The individual dance steps go like this:
- He criticizes even the smallest of actions (the length of time she chose to microwave dessert, for instance).
- Bev pushes back against what feels like constant and unfair judgment by telling him he needs to stop criticizing all the time.
- He comments on her inability to handle criticism.
- They go back and forth, trading judgments and jabs.
A strategy for responding to frequent criticism
One of the reasons that disagreements get messy is that issues get tangled. There’s an old Spanish proverb, It takes two to quarrel, but only one to end it. Bev has the power to change the dance by untangling the two issues. Here’s how:
- De-couple the two issues. Two (though likely related) issues are getting tangled and the best way to untangle them is to deal with them separately. What does de-coupling the issues look like in practice? Read on…
- Acknowledge receipt. Acknowledging isn’t the same as accepting or agreeing, though people often confuse the two. Acknowledgment in Bev’s case is a simple, Thanks for the feedback. I’ll consider it. Period. I mean it – period.
- Cool off. If ticked off, wait a while before thinking it through. Research suggests about half an hour of other activity to really cool down.
- Decide to accept or reject. The receiver of feedback gets to choose whether or not any of it has enough merit to act on. The benefit of cooling off first is that you have a better chance of seeing any wise nuggets in the other person’s rampant criticism. And if there aren’t any, you get to reject the gift of insults.
- Repeat. Several times. This demonstrates your willingness to consider feedback the other is offering. This the courageous step, by the way, the place where most will be tempted to throw in the towel. You may be thinking, Why should I have to keep listening to this crap? Why is it my burden to be the adult here? Well, because you are an adult. If particularly frustrated, try the “what would love do now?” meditation.
- Raise the second issue later. At a time completely separate, raise the second issue, the frequency with which s/he criticizes. In Bev’s instance, it means choosing a time when neither of them is ticked off and saying, I’d like to talk about something that’s been weighing on me. I’ve been working hard not to push back when you offer me feedback, and now I’d like you to consider some feedback from me. Can we talk about this for a few minutes?
I advised Bev to try the above strategy for a week or two before going to Step 6. It does mean she’ll have to bite her tongue. But if this is the man she loves, two weeks is a pretty small period in a lifetime relationship.
And I suspect a few things may happen over those two weeks if she can successfully keep herself from tangling the two issues. He will probably begin to notice that she isn’t pushing back whenever he criticizes, and that may soften his habit a bit. She may discover there’s wheat (something beneficial) in all the criticism chaff. The bickering should decrease. And when she’s ready to raise the second issue, he’s much more likely to be willing to talk about it meaningfully.
In conflict, it’s tempting to make it the other person’s job to fix the problem. How much more empowering to remember that you can change the dance steps yourself.