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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Criticism: The Most Common Thing In Life

Criticism is always difficult to take no matter how pleasantly given and very often we can take it personally, especially if it is not given in a constructive manner or the person giving the criticism is not skilled in this, which, let’s face it, few of us are. So how should we handle criticism if we are on the receiving end?

Let’s take an example of the mother-in-law who constantly criticizes her daughter-in-law. She finds fault with her physical appearance, the way she manages the children, the food she cooks for her family, her housekeeping ability and so on, undermining her daughter-in-law’s self-confidence until she dreads going anywhere near her mother-in-law. Her husband doesn’t help as he lets the criticism go unchecked, causing friction in the marriage.

So let’s try looking at this from a number of angles.

The daughter-in-law – we’ll call her Carol – thinks the mother-in-law is a dragon, but instead of facing up to her and dealing confidently with the problem herself she attacks her husband, Michael, accusing him of being weak, uncaring and unloving towards her. Michael feels threatened by his wife’s accusations, unhappy and torn between his mother and his wife and inadequate that he cannot face up to either, so he adopts the tactic of shrugging both off, believing that if he ignores the problem it will go away! Of course it doesn’t: it only gets worse over the years.

So, before Carol plucks up courage to tackle her mother-in-law she needs to give some thought as to why her mother-in-law is behaving like this. What are her attitudes, values, pressures, thoughts and feelings?

Well she could be:
  • jealous because she has lost her son to a rival
  • resentful because Carol has taken her son away from her
  • resentful because Carol and Michael have a better chance at happiness than she ever had
  • jealous because Carol has more freedom than she had and more opportunities
  • afraid – at being left on her own
  • lonely
  • frustrated because she has never fulfilled her own true potential
  • disappointed – because she expected great things from her son and he has married too early and beneath her expectations (no matter how unrealistic).
So many things may be influencing the mother-in-law and these may have festered over the years and got blown up out of all proportion because she has never been able to express her emotions and communicate them effectively. If Carol can go into this exchange understanding or at least trying to see where her mother-in-law is coming from, or why she is behaving as she is, it will help her deal with it.

If you are on the receiving end of criticism from a relative or friend, like Carol, or from someone at work, then first consider that the other person has a right to criticize you. If you do not do this then you will behave aggressively. If Carol is thinking ‘What right has my mother-in-law got to criticize me?’ then she will behave aggressively towards her mother-in-law.

However, if you accept they have the right to criticize you then you will also want them to accept that you have rights. The right not to be put down, not to be made to look small or to be subjected to personal attacks; also that you have a right for that criticism to be made in private rather than in front of colleagues or others. Here are some tips to help you deal with this.

If you are unclear about the meaning of the criticism then ask the other person for clarification.

I find this particularly helpful because asking them what they mean gives me time to get the right mindset and to think of my reply. It also means they have to repeat themselves and people rarely say the same thing twice. Say something like, ‘I’d find it helpful, Mary, if you could give me some examples of what you mean.’ Not ‘What the devil do you mean by that!’

Try and separate in your mind the content of the criticism and the way it is given. If this has happened before, say, ‘I accept that your criticism is valid, Laura, but I’d prefer it if you made it less of a personal attack.’

If you disagree with the criticism then say so. Again use the ‘I’ statement, ‘As I see it, that is not what happened’ or ‘My view is different.’ This is a technique that Carol should adopt with her mother-in-law. Maintain steady eye contact. Keep your voice up, rather than letting it sink, but don’t get high-pitched, ‘I don’t believe that!’