Communication — 17 July 2005
How to avoid perceived criticism in your communication

One communication problem that most people face is how to keep conversing when a partner perceives criticism. Once people feel criticized, they resort to defensive responses, which terminates harmonious discourse. How to talk and avoid being heard as critical, and how to respond when criticism is perceived- are two important communication skills worth having.

Criticism smarts. It threatens our sense of being of value and being desirable. In relationships, it is particularly important for each partner to feel liked, respected and well thought of by his or her mate. It reaffirms the individual’s worth and the stability of the love relationship.

Because staying in good graces with the partner is so important, most people develop a highly tuned mechanism for detecting even the smallest traces of disapproval. This information alerts the person to correct the partner’s inaccurate view in order to re-establish oneself positively with the mate.

Thus, perceived criticism renders the person who feels criticized unable to continue the conversation, while s/he concentrates on the insult and on a way to change the partner’s view. The response is often defensive, apologetic, antagonistic, rebuffing, or accusatory, which only leads to a predictable fight.

Feeling criticized, reduces people to a child-like state. It reminds them of having been corrected, reprimanded and disapproved of by their parents and the fear and shame they felt. Children desperately need to please their parents for their survival and go to great lengths to redeem themselves in the eyes of their displeased parents. They instinctively equate disapproval of the caregivers with risks to their well being.

Youngsters may also be unclear about the difference between their behavior and their essential worth. When their conduct is frowned upon, children translate it to mean that they are unlovable and may be at risk of suffering great harm.

As adults, people transfer the need for love and approval they needed from their parents to their partners. When mates feel criticized by their partners they often regress to feeling as they did in childhood and react similarly. The adults’ response to criticism is more intense if they had experienced it as children.

Because being well thought of by their partner is so essential to emotional security, sometimes people perceive criticism even when it is not present. They say: “You always criticize everything I say,” or “I don’t like the look on your face when I talk to you.” Both verbal and non-verbal clues are used to identify perceived disapproval.

Partners of people who perceive criticism, often deny negative thoughts or intentions. They explain the “constant criticism” as differing opinions, their “look” as intense concentration, and they disavow a critical stance.

Some partners hear questions as implied criticism. “Have you already made the call you promised to make?” may be a straight question or a veiled criticism. The tone, word intonation, and ongoing patterns about prompt responses to needed actions, may contribute to how this seemingly simple question is heard.

Some partners hear reminders as a form of criticism. “ I just want to remind you to fix the fence before our party,” may be perceived as a parental statement that implies disrespect of the fence fixer’s compliance with his/her commitment. Questions, not infrequently are misinterpreted as controlling, disempowering, and disrespectful.

So how does one deal with needing affirmation about an issue, without offending the listener?

• The brief answer is TELL-DON’T ASK. The curious partner needs to talk of his or her own feelings while affirming the trust in the partner: “I am anxious about the fence being fixed before the party though I know it will be done on time.”
• Use a neutral or positive tone.
• Wait for a response. If none occurs, your partner already knows of your concern and will likely advance his/her schedule to please you.
• Expect that any agreements made by your partner will be carried out without reminders. If your history doesn’t support this assumption, ask your partner at the onset, what will help him/her stay on schedule.
• Written notes are often preferred to talking because the non-verbal cues are absent and the message may be a helpful reminder. The partner who agrees to do a task needs to write the reminder note to him/herself. A to do list by mate may not be as welcomed.
• If you need to ask, turn your question into an appreciation: “ I am always impressed with how well you fix things around the house, I can’t wait to see the fixed fence as well.”
• Speak with kindness and phrase your concerns the way you would have like to hear them if the situation were reversed.

If you are the partner who perceives the criticism:

• Do not accuse your partner of being critical. Speak about your own need. Say: “Can you please rephrase your statement so that I can hear you better?”
• Thank your partner for the newly phrased sentence, and respond gracefully.
• Advise your partner nicely during a warm conversation, that you know that s/he is not intending to sound critical, but certain tones, gestures, words or posture appear critical to you. S/he may not be aware of it and will probably attempt to change these behaviors.

• Ask your partner to state his/her disapproval by telling you what alternative behavior will please him or her.
• Be aware of your own language, tone and gestures that may be viewed as critical and alter them.
• Confide in your partner about critical or hurtful behavior of your parents and its impact on you as a child. This will motivate your mate to modify his/her similar behavior to spare you pain.

• The more loving you sound in your communication, the greater the chance is that your partner will emulate it as well.

Healthy communication between partners stems from respect for each other, kindness and the use of simple tools.

July 17, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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