Avoid criticism in a critical world

Jonathan Swinton

Criticism is one of the four greatest predictors of divorce and is harmful to all types of relationships. We live in a society where criticism has become the norm and respect a thing of the past. This is one of the reasons families across the United States are deteriorating.

What does criticism look like? We are critical when we communicate our concerns in a way that can be interpreted as personally attacking or blaming. Some examples — 

• You always put work ahead of me and the kids.

• What is wrong with you?

• When are you going to act like an adult and put your clothes in the laundry basket?

Clearly, there are relevant concerns illustrated here that may need to be expressed, but the way the concerns are presented will come across as personally attacking and blaming. That is what we need to avoid.

Criticism can be unnecessarily influenced by the emotions of the moment. Criticism makes others feel attacked and belittled. It triggers defensiveness and reactivity in the one being criticized. Think about when others are critical of you. 

Does it motivate you to want to change? Or does it simply make you want to defend yourself or save face? 

Three ways to avoid criticism — 

1. Complain without blame. As marriage researcher John Gottman counsels, if you express frustrations without pointing a finger at another, criticism can be avoided.

2. Express your frustrations about situations, actions, or behaviors. Human tendency is to focus on how people are bothering us or causing problems, rather than the behavioral manifestations that frustrate us. For example, someone may make a critical remark such as: “Why can’t you clean up after yourself?” A better way to say it would be: “I feel frustrated about how messy the house is.” The latter example focuses on the situation, rather than the person.

3. State positive needs. People tend to focus on what they don’t want others to do anymore. However, this doesn’t help the other understand what they want instead. For example, a person may say to their spouse: “You need to stop giving the kids all of your attention.” The positive need is likely a desire to have more time and attention from the spouse. A positive need request would be: “Could we spend some time one-on-one today?”

All of us are critical of others at one time or another. Such criticism may be positively motivated so that things can improve. However, there is a better way. 

You can respectfully address just about any issue without criticism if you are willing to put forth the effort and follow these three recommendations. The wellbeing of your family may depend on it.

Dr. Swinton is a relationship and mental health expert with Utah State University Extension in Sevier County. 

If you have questions you would like him to confidentially address in this column, email him at jonathan.swinton@usu.edu.

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