We criticize in the name of improvement. In the name of problem-solving. In the name of personal and professional growth. In the name of feedback. And when all is said and done, so much criticism can become a habit that feeds interpersonal conflict and bickering. Here’s a challenge you can try if you want to break your own criticism habit.
In 2009, I honored Conflict Resolution Day by inviting readers to “bring peacemaking down to the individual level and make a commitment to do one simple thing of your own choosing. One thing that starts peacemaking with you. One thing that’s a specific behavior or action…not just a dream or a hope or a grand plan. One simple, concrete thing.”
I made my own commitment: “For one week I will stop myself from verbalizing all criticism. I will bite my tongue, keep it to myself, let it go, move on. And I’ll report back here what the experience was like and where it fits into the scope of simple habits for effective conflict resolution.”
What I learned about the criticism habit
Well, I’m reporting back. What started as a one-week gig stretched to two months as I delved more deeply into the criticism habit. Five primary learnings emerged from my experiment:
- It’s more insidious than you initially think.
- It feeds bickering and conflict at home and work.
- It’s easier to suspend criticism of people you like, harder to suspend it with people you love.
- The reasons for criticism, when examined closely, rarely stand up to scrutiny.
- That last one’s so important, it bears repeating: The reasons for criticism, when examined closely, rarely stand up to scrutiny.
Why we criticize
I don’t pretend that the following is a complete list of all the reasons people choose to criticize. It’s a list I built based on 10 years of work with clients who want to change their own conflict behaviors, fault-finding being one of them. Here then, are the reasons that come up most frequently in my work – and honestly, some of them in my own life, too.
- To raise ourselves up.
- To get someone to change something they do that we don’t like.
- To draw attention to a problem we see.
- Because it’s become a habit.
- Because we’re being retributive.
- Because we’re naturally good at noticing flaws and problems.
- Because we hold others to the same high-criticism standard to which we hold ourselves.
Why frequent criticism is a problem
Each goal and reason offered above begs a companion question. If you criticize to achieve a goal, is your criticism achieving it? If you criticize because it’s a part of who and how you are, is it the way you want to be? For instance,
- If the goal is to raise yourself up, then it’s important to ask, Why do you have to put others down to give yourself value?
- If the goal is to get someone to change, then it’s important to ask, Is it true that frequent criticism inspires change?
- If the goal is to draw attention to a problem, then it’s important to ask, How will the most important problems you notice not get lost in the constant stream of your criticism?
- If it’s a habit, then it’s important to ask, Is this a habit that serves you and those around you well?
- If it’s an act of retribution or payback, then it’s important to ask, What are the long-term consequences of building a cycle of criticism and complaint?
- If you’re naturally good at noticing flaws, then it’s important to ask, How will you avoid becoming the complainer, whiner or nitpicker that everyone tires of eventually?
- If you criticize others because it’s a reflection of how you treat yourself, then it’s important to ask, Why would you subject others to the pain you cause yourself?
Frequent criticism breaks relationships. Period. Are you breaking your relationships?
Kicking the constant criticism habit
Changing the criticism habit is simple…but not easy. If you’re serious about it, here are five practices I found helpful in examining my own behavior and which conflict coaching clients have told me helped them, too.
- Commit out loud. Tell people you’re experimenting with breaking this habit and ask for their forebearance while you learn how to stop and make different choices for yourself. Making a “public” commitment helps you feel more accountable to making the change.
- Notice. Take one week and notice the frequency with which you criticize others or yourself, including those times you may not verbalize your criticism. Most people find this a pretty revealing and humbling experience. And many realize that constant criticism is much more of a habit than they’d realized prior.
- Practice pausing. Practice adding a pause before you criticize, inwardly or verbally. In my own experiment, I practiced closing my mouth again when I’d taken a breath to criticize. A few people noticed and would say things like, “What were you going to say?” I learned to reply, “Nothing. Not important.”
- Replace criticism with empathy. Substitute your natural predisposition toward compassion to trump your criticism habit. In action, this means asking yourself a simple centering question like, What would love do now? or What’s going on for this person right now?
Remember, you create a vacuum when you try to cease one habit, and you know what nature likes to do with a vacuum – fill it. So unless you have a substitute habit, you’ll get sucked into using the fallback one every time. Make empathy your substitute habit. It’s learnable, do-able, and life-altering.