The Art to Criticize

Our society has become a lot more individualised in the past few decades. We are all asked to stand on our own two feet, make up our minds, and take responsibility for our choices. Our communities are made up of many individuals with a diversity of opinions, preferences, habits and cultural backgrounds. We are more than ever confronted with ‘difference’ and it is no surprise that on our path to becoming more of who we are, we meet anger and criticism in ourselves and others.

We are asked to develop ways to express our hurt, anger or criticism that generate understanding, compassion and love, rather than more hurt, contempt or defense. In our Western culture, we have learned the art of arguing, debating and persuading, where the intention is to win. We learn to become clever, to interrupt, and plan our next move. We listen to win, by focusing on the others’ faults, we don’t learn to listen in order to understand. Yet, most of us can’t tolerate being with others unless we feel understood. In relationships, we often discover that even if we won the battle, we lost the love.

What is so hard in giving and receiving criticism? As Warren Farrell points out, using anger and criticism “to clear the air of problems is a bit like using insecticides to clear the air of bugs: both can pollute the air to clean the air”. Our natural response to criticism is defense or counter-attack. On the other hand, unresolved grievances block the flow of love.

To give feedback and share one’s hurt, dilemma and struggle with another feels risky. Many of us fear rejection and try to avoid conflict. It is as hard to give as to receive criticism. Some of us have learned to disconnect from our feelings in order to handle it. Receiving negative feedback is also difficult when we haven’t felt understood ourselves. Giving criticism so it can be easily heard, and receiving criticism so it can be easily given, is a skill that can be learned.

Warren Farrell, in his book “Women can’t hear what men don’t say”, gives us guidance on those relationship skills. Here are a few key points:

When you give criticism, make sure the timing is right. Ideally create a predictable time in which to share negative feelings, call it “sharing/caring time”. Don’t complain too often, instead write down what bothers you and choose only the most important point for your turn. Share at least four positive examples before the negative in the problem you address. Soften your complaints with positive affect, friendly tone of voice and a little humour go a long way. Be specific and avoid self-righteousness by also sharing your fears. Remember your task is to give criticism so it can be easily heard and you can feel understood.

It is helpful to know, that both are vulnerable, the giver as well as the receiver of criticism.

When it is your turn to hear criticism, remember, the critisizer’s best intent is to be closer to you. We ususally feel bothered by people we care about. Focus on the bit of truth, not the distortion. And remember, it’s their version of their story. Keep your energy on their story rather than your defenses. Listen with the intention to understand, hear them out, and share your understanding of what they said. Don’t problem-solve, give assurances, or make instant promises to change and ask the criticizer to clarify anything you may have misinterpreted or omitted. Respond and complete by reversing roles. Stick with the issues the criticiser has presented and clarify what you feel are distortions. Don’t bring up a new issue. Negotiate a new time if need be and thank the criticizer.

These simplified suggestions may seem easy. Yet, like any new skill, we need to practise them with patience and good will. Go well!

Mirjam Busch


Copyright © 11/2001 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Southshore Beacon, Nov2001

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