Muhammad wrote me with the question, “What amounts to criticizing?” He told me about a difficult situation with his son, with whom he’s presently living. He wrote,
I came across your “Conflict Habits” information on my computer from when I don’t recall, and after reading it (excellent information) I have a question…[personal information redacted]…he puts up the “criticizing me” defense, the “you are so self-righteous defense,” the “you are so ungrateful for our helping you defense,” and finally (and this is the real gem), the “whatever I do is your and my mother’s fault” after I’m 40 years old. If this reaches you successfully, I would appreciate your feedback, and have no problem if you publicize this inquiry, or want more information.
Criticizing is expressing disapproval of someone or judging their faults. Criticizing can play a key role in conflict when two people get into what I call “the dance of criticism.” It sounds to me like Muhammad and his son are in this very dance.
In the dance of criticism, both dance partners play a role in allowing the dance to continue. One plays a part by criticizing a bit too freely, not necessarily out of bad intention (good intentions don’t cancel bad impact). The other plays a part by becoming so reactive to criticism that they hear it even when it’s not really there (I spend a chapter on this in my upcoming book, The Conflict Pivot). On they dance, each contributing to escalation and unhappiness.
There are ways to stop the dance of criticism. In ongoing relationships, like Muhammad’s relationship with his adult son, it often takes both people to break the habit they’ve gotten into together. Here are some of the things each might do:
- Both would do well to learn the difference between feedback and criticism.
- The one who most often criticizes must resist the urge to criticize with frequency. We may criticize far more often than we’re aware, as I found out in a one-week criticizing experiment five years ago. A regular habit of criticizing causes others to disregard our important messages.
- The one who feels criticized too often can help break the cycle of his own misery by responding differently to criticism and separating how the criticism was delivered from the message in it.
- The one who is accused of criticizing too frequently or too harshly may find it helpful to look for the equal human in front of them.
- The person who feels unduly criticized may well find some relief by learning about their own conflict hooks and how to manage them.
- Both may find it helpful to know the secret mediators know about good listening.
What does this last one look like in practice? When his son says, “You are ungrateful for our help,” Muhammad might say, not in a dismissive way, but in an I-am-truly-interested way, “Help me understand how my concern about you is connected to being ungrateful.” When his son says, “You are so self-righteous,” Muhammad might say, “Tell me more about that.” When his son responds, “You think you’re perfect and you’re not,” Muhammad might ask, “So are you saying if I voice my concerns without arrogance and self-righteousness, you would be willing to discuss them with me?” When his son says, “It’s your fault I am who I am,” Muhammad might say, “It would probably be good for each of us to take responsibility for the parts we’ve played in how your life has unfolded. It’s good that you have raised this so that we can talk about it.”
The dance you start doesn’t have to be the dance you stay in.