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Criticism: Don't take it (or give it) personally

What I lack in rock climbing skill, I make up for with rock climbing enthusiasm.

I love the physical and mental challenge of finding my way up a wall, I love the focus I have to bring to checking my gear and I love the sense of freedom that comes from hanging at eye-level with soaring birds.

The only problem is that I'm not a terribly skilled climber!

Luckily, I have a coach who helps me refine my technique, usually my watching me and suggesting how I could improve, and I am tremendously grateful to him for that.

When I explained this all to my (then-) 10 year old son thought this was the craziest thing he had ever heard. "You mean you pay him to tell you what you are doing wrong? Why would you give your money to someone who is trying to make you feel bad?"

With the alarming insight of a child, my kid accidentally nailed the challenge of criticism and why it is so hard for so many couples.

Criticism is a form of self-protection to ward off a perceived attack, often in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood, and it can be incredibly damaging in a relationship. In fact, pioneering therapists John and Julie Gottman identify it as one of the "four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse."

Criticism is what we hear when it feels like someone is attacking who we are - "You are such a slob" or "You're so uptight," which is what my son imagined my coach was doing to me.

Indeed, that's not what my (very supportive) coach does. He offers critique to help me improve my form in areas where I am struggling, but I don't take it personally, for at least two reasons.

One is that I know that I am not my rock climbing form, so it's relatively easy for me to avoid taking his critique personally. The other is that my limitations don't have any impact on my coach, so he can offer his critique dispassionately.

But its not only the 10 year-olds who get confused on this - navigating criticism and critique is a challenge for many couples and it is also a tremendous opportunity for growth.

Bahya ibn Paquda, a Jewish philosopher of the 11th century taught that "The highest virtue is found in the one who accepts criticism and listens to the one who offers critique, but... one who rejects reproof is marked by a repulsiveness containing the worst evils."

So how do we do this? How can we communicate around our frustrations in a relationship in a productive way?

Some of the work is related to how we speak, and some of the work is related to how we listen.

When we are speaking, or sharing our concerns with our partners, we can strive to follow this three part formula:

  1. Express how you feel: Effective complaints begin with a soft start-up, and are best launched by stating how you feel. A feeling may be an emotion like anger or fear, or a physical state like tiredness or pain. The soft start-up is in contrast to the harsh start-up that usually accompanies criticism. For instance, you might begin with "I feel frustrated..."

  2. Talk about a very specific situation After stating your feeling, describe the situation or behavior that elicited that feeling. It will be important to avoid globalizing words, like “you always” or “you never.” Now you might continue, "... that you left your dirty dishes out."

  3. State a positive need Finally, ask your partner to take positive action to resolve the complaint. So, in this case you might conclude by saying, "And I'd like to ask you to clean them and put them away before you go to bed."

But communication is not just about how we speak; its about how we listen as well. Even if our partner is as deliberate and skillful as possible, we might get defensive because as my child observed, any critique might make us feel bad. When our partner brings us a critique, it is on us to hear it and respond. We honor our partners by taking what they say seriously.

If the specific complaint (please clean your dishes) triggers a much larger response because of how it connects to other experiences (eg: my mother used to shame me for being sloppy as a kid and I remember her yelling me while I cleaned the dishes) then own that and articulate it so your partner knows what's going on. Alternatively, if our partner needs help articulating why they are pissed at us - and we feel capable of pulling this off - we might simply say, "I see you are really aggravated. Is there something specific I can do to make this easier for you?"

Learning to communicate deeply is not just emotional intelligence; it is a form of spiritual practice.

I'm grateful for my climbing coach, and I see him a few times a season about making progress in a recreational sport. I see my partner every day, and if we can offer and accept critique in effective, generative ways, we can continuously strengthen our connection, which is one the most important elements of my life.


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