I had an interesting talk with a client the other day. He shared: “When I first met my wife, I really appreciated her telling me what impact my behaviour had on her. I learned, for example, how it affected her when I was late and I worked hard to change my time management skills. However, about a year or two into the relationship, I gave up. Somehow I felt I couldn’t change enough and it felt like I was constantly being watched for a misstep. Each time she pointed something out to me that she had noticed about me, it felt like I was being stabbed in the heart.”
Why does criticism so often feel like we are being stabbed in the heart? Why does it make us feel fearful and defensive? Historically, being criticized and found lacking could lead to being ostracised from our tribe, and that could mean death, as we as humans were unable to survive by ourselves.
Even though a part of us knows criticism does not mean rejection and death, the more instinctive parts of our brain kick in and our nervous system goes into high arousal. Relationships require us to communicate honestly and to handle criticism constructively. If we stuff down our feelings and needs, they will either come back up in passive aggressive ways or will be kept down by methods of avoidance like addictions. In the first case, the person can’t help but make little digs, use sarcasm or putdowns, or worst of all, talk negatively about their partner behind their back. The avoidance methods take many different forms: physical symptoms like tension headaches or fatigue, addictions like drinking, gambling, overworking, having affairs, to name a few.
How does one express a complaint in a way that it can be easily heard and does not feel like being stabbed in the heart? The two main rules of constructive criticism are
- Tone of Voice
Your partner is more likely to be able to remain open if you use a soft, gentle, respectful and appreciative tone of voice. You are going to be more successful if you can approach him or her with affection, interest in their intent or experience, positive physical touch, smiles and even humour and laughter.
- Appreciations Need to Outbalance the Complaints
Gottman emphasizes the Magic Relationship Ratio of 5:1. That means for each complaint or criticism we need to receive five positive or appreciative statements. Other experts speak about similar ratios.
How do we ensure that ratio and help our partner remain open and continue to feel safe with us instead of watched? Warren Farrell, author of “Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say”, offers two methods of successfully delivering criticism.
The first method is what he calls the “Plan Ahead Method of Giving Criticism”:
Step 1: Write Down Your Complaints
To figure out what the most important concerns are, it helps to write down our complaints on index cards and to put them in a box. The mere act of writing them down releases some of the negative energy. It also frees us from the need to keep reviewing the complaint in our mind. However, most importantly this helps us to sort out which complaints are the ones worth bringing up.
Step 2: Set a Predictable Time Each Week to Share
Gottman recommends a “State of the Union Meeting” every week to talk about what went well and what is not going so well in the relationship. Farrell calls it a “Sharing and Caring Evening”. Once you have set a predictable time each week, stick to it and turn the rest of the week into a “no-complaint zone”.
Step 3: Share at Least 4 Positive Feelings Before Each Complaint
During your meeting share at least four positive feelings with each negative. In order to do that make positive notes throughout the week whenever you appreciate something your partner is doing. An extra incentive is to do the positive notes ahead of time and leave these little notes for your partner as you notice it. That trains our “gratitude muscle” and shifts our focus to noticing the positive.
Step 4: Incorporate Humour and Romance
For your “Sharing and Caring Evening,” turn on music, light candles, face each other, touch and look into each other’s eyes. Share your 4-5 positives and then make one request for improvement or change. Then alternate; let your partner share in kind. Do three to five rounds of this depending on how much you have to share. Because you feel so understood, you might want to make love, but always return to completing the process after love making. Otherwise, the rest of the week as a complaint free zone might disintegrate.
It would be ideal, of course, if we could always just give criticism by using this Plan Ahead Method but sometimes a talk has to happen right in the moment. Farrell also provides steps for “The Spontaneous Method of Giving Criticism”:
Step 1: Identify Your Loved One’s Best Intent
Let’s say your partner is late because they got caught up in solving a problem for work. He lost track of time because he wanted to complete and finish a project. You might feel tempted of diving right into your own disappointment about him being late, or you can instead acknowledge his best intent, e.g. “I know that you are really responsible and I can see how you were trying to do your best to complete the task at work.”
Step 2: Identify Your Partner’s Dilemma or Struggle
Most of us are caught in a dilemma and when our partner can empathize with our inner struggle, we feel heard and understood. In our example, you could say, “I imagine you feel caught between wanting to be on time for me and feeling you need to finish and complete the work.”
Step 3: Identify the Feeling Behind Your Partner’s Dilemma
Empathy with our feeling experience also makes us feel seen and appreciated. “It must be stressful to have in the back of your mind that I am waiting for you.”
Step 4: Identify the positive character traits your partner exhibited in her or his handling of this situation
By doing that we show that their underlying character traits are not in question. They do not need to defend their values. “I imagine it is also hard to leave a project unfinished when you value responsibility and reliability as you do. I am always grateful when I can rely on you completing a project for me.”
Step 5: Recall relevant past conversations and use them to make your partner feel more understood
Instead of using past incidents to argue your own point and for ammunition against the other person, empathize even more. The rule for love relationships is, the more arguments we win, the more love we lose. “I remember how torn you were when your colleague left on vacation and you had to finish the project you were both working on over the weekend. He is really lucky you did that.”
After using the five steps, your partner feels understood and appreciated. They are still open and receptive. Instead of having to defend their values and choices, they can take a step towards you to resolve the problem together. Now it is time to gently share the impact the situation has on you and to work out a compromise which works for both of you.
Farrell points out that learning relationship language is the best hope of re-stabilizing our relationships and families which technology has destabilized and affected negatively. When we teach debate skills in schools, we teach listening for the purpose of uncovering the other team’s faulty analysis. In our private one-on-one relationships, especially our intimate relationship, this way of listening and arguing is like a termite is to wood. It slowly erodes the relationship. “Teaching children to debate without teaching children to listen is divorce training” (Warren Farrell).
To read more about how to receive criticism,
please read “Getting to the Complaint Underneath the Criticism“.
To learn relationship language and how to handle criticism,
contact me for
individual coaching sessions, couples’ sessions or workshops.
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