It’s possible to turn criticism into a positive conversation, whether you’re the recipient of someone’s criticism or you’ve gotten feedback about being too critical. The key is to find the hidden message the criticism is trying to convey. Here’s how to do that.
The other day I heard myself hiss at my husband, “Why don’t you listen!” Even in that self-righteous moment when I felt totally justified in saying it, my better self shook her head in disgust at me. Even when we know better, our lesser selves sometimes manage to seize the moment.
We’re not very appealing at the moment we’re criticizing and sitting in judgment, and that makes us less persuasive. As business and personal strategist Tony Robbins perfectly pointed out,
You can’t influence somebody when you’re judging them.
Like anger, criticism has a message that’s struggling to be heard, but the message gets lost in the delivery. Whether you’re the recipient of someone’s criticism or wish to reform your own critical words or ways, here’s a nearly magical way to turn criticism into a positive conversation.
What is criticism?
A movie or literary critic typically critiques the quality of a work, rendering their opinion about its merits. A complaint expresses dissatisfaction with a specific event or behavior. Criticism, as I mean it in this article, is distinct from complaint or critique. Criticism expresses disapproval of a person or entity (as in, an organization, department, or family); it’s a generalized judgment about their merits as humans or as a group of humans.
Because of its personal nature, criticism hurts, even when hurt isn’t intended. Criticism attacks our identity, how we see ourselves in the world and want others to see us. It insults our images of ourselves as competent, reliable, worthy of others’ fellowship, self-reliant, and so on. It goes straight to our core.
It’s no wonder, then, that frequent criticism not only fails to persuade, but leaves debris in ongoing personal and professional relationships, little splinters of hurt that pile up over time. It’s not their job to toughen up, to have to drag personal armor into every exchange with us; it’s our job to be better communicators if we want something to change.
Criticism is born of something. It’s prompted by something that’s bothering us. To get our needs met without bruising someone’s identity, even unintentionally, we need to look beyond the criticism and beyond even the complaint.
We need to find our wish.
How to turn criticism into a positive
Memorize this phrase from psychotherapist Esther Perel; it’s a keeper: Behind every criticism is a wish.
Perel, looking at criticism through a therapist’s lens, believes that criticism is an oblique way to avoid rejection:
If I say “I wish,” I have to put myself out there. It means I want something and I can be refused. I can be rejected. I can be not heard. And in a relationship that is not secure, I will defend against that. I don’t want to show you that side of me. So instead of saying what I want, I’ll say what you didn’t do. That’s the criticism. What you didn’t do and what’s wrong with you is safer, in some bizarre way, than to tell you what is special about me and what I would’ve wanted.Esther perel
Whether or not you agree with Perel that criticism springs from fear of rejection or is a mechanism for self-protection, I hope you’ll consider the very powerful idea that expressing a wish is more effective than expressing a criticism when we want something to change.
Replace your criticism with your wish
When you need or want something to change, and wish to practice a habit other than criticism or repeated complaints, figure out the wish behind your criticism. As you practice this new habit, you may initially have to peel back several layers of the criticism onion to illuminate your wish.
Here are some examples of possible wishes for common criticisms. They may not be the wish you’d have if you uttered that criticism, of course. I offer them to illustrate a path that takes us from criticism to wish:
- Criticism: You’re such a slacker.
- Complaint: You’re not pulling your share of the load.
- Fear: I will bear the burden of doing it all. Or, I will fail to do it all well.
- Wish: I would like help getting this project done well.
- Criticism: You never listen!
- Complaint: It’s frustrating when you ask me a question and then don’t listen to my answer.
- Fear: My opinion doesn’t matter. Or, You’re not really interested in what I have to say.
- Wish: I’d like what I say to matter to you.
- Criticism: He’s so passive-aggressive.
- Complaint: He commits to a task and then doesn’t do it.
- Fear: He thinks I’m a pushover. Or, I’ll have to take on his task at the last minute.
- Wish: I want to trust his promises.
Imagine the conversation that’s possible when a criticism is translated into a wish: I want this project to go well and reflect positively on me. I’d like what I say to matter to you. I want to trust your promises without hesitation. I want not to doubt my understanding of what we agreed on. I want to come to work each day energized by the prospect of working with you on this project. I want to look forward, even feel excited by, team meetings. I want to come home at the end of the day looking forward to quiet time with you.
When you’re the recipient of someone else’s criticism
If you’re the recipient of someone else’s criticism, particularly if it’s the kind of constant criticism that can become habitual in some relationships, you can get some relief for yourself by helping them figure out the wish behind their criticism.
Is it your “job” to have to do this? Maybe not. But as management consultant Peter Block bluntly put it, “Do you want an A or do you want something to change?“
To help them illuminate the wish behind their criticism, try questions like these:
- I’ve read that behind every criticism is a wish. What’s the wish behind your criticism of me?
- Instead of what’s wrong with me, can you tell me what you’re wishing for?
- If I were/weren’t (fill in the label or criticism), what would that mean to you? (Example: If I were a good listener, what would that mean to you?)
As always, time, place, and tone make the difference between questions that are effective and questions that fall flat or escalate.
In the conversation with my husband, I had to wrestle Bad Tammy into a mental corner and instruct her to shut up. Otherwise, we would have ended up in the kind of hamster wheel debate that achieves nothing but self-righteous anger: Why don’t you listen? I do listen! No you don’t! Yes, I do! Blah blah blah.
Then I tried this: “I need to take back that comment about you not listening and replace it with this: I want to feel confident I’ve been heard when I speak to you.” What followed was a useful conversation about how I tend to give information faster than he can absorb it and I need to slow down, and how it’s useful for him to stop doing two things at once when we’re talking about something important.
Behind every criticism is a wish.
The overflowing teacup
This traditional zen koan, or story, beautifully illustrates the reason that it’s so hard to change someone’s mind when they’re certain they’re right.Read the article