Is criticism helpful?
It’s a heated question, one that’s been burning in the minds of forward-thinking organizations and relationship experts for years. The answer hinges on a lot of factors, including tone, intention, word choice, delivery, timing, ratios (more on that later), and, ultimately, trust.
What complicates matters is that the definition of “criticism” varies. It likely comes as no surprise that for most people the concept drums up negative feelings, often viewed as unwanted and unhelpful at best.
At its worst? Criticism is a great way to drive away those you love. Dr. John Gottman of the famed Gottman Institute could predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy. He believes that criticism is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” of relationship ruin, slowly eroding trust and, with it, all the positive feelings your relationship once brought you.
Of course, people often believe their criticism is constructive or that they’re “just being honest.” But it’s been shown time and again that bluntly pointing out character flaws doesn’t solve anything. After all, no relationship — be it professional, personal, familial, romantic, or even your relationship with God — is flawless. Yet far too many of us, in our quest for perfection, wreak havoc on those we love most by spotlighting their flaws or shortcomings.
So, if you’re struggling with being too critical, how do you address the real problem at hand?
Start with yourself: Criticism usually reflects on the critic.
“Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing," mused writer Joyce Carol Oates. In other words: What other people say about me reveals more about them than me.
Criticism is telling. “It tells you more about the psychology of the critic than the people he or she criticizes,” writes Steven Stosny, Ph.D. on Psychology Today. “Astute professionals can formulate a viable diagnostic hypothesis just from hearing someone's criticisms.”
Simply put, we’re not as impartial as we think. Our thoughts reflect our values, our priorities, and what we believe to be acceptable to say to others. Furthermore, what we think about — and thus talk about — is what we’ve habituated our noggins to notice.
Your brain has created mechanisms to sift through all kinds of information all at once. One of these mechanisms is “selective attention,” which is leveraged in order to make sense of happenings and to find patterns (similar to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon). Thus, by examining our inner critic — our little narrator — we can take note on what we’ve made ourselves care about. Being mindful of our internal reflections is telling.
For instance, if you find yourself being unfairly hard on others — especially to those you love — there’s a fat chance that you’re unfairly hard on yourself, too. But that’s a whole other conversation regarding self-love and self-worth.
Know the difference between criticism and a complaint.
"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots," said American politician Frank A. Clark. I find that this is one of the most helpful descriptions on how criticism, when done right, can be transformative.
It all depends on how you define “criticism,” though. In an effort to emphasize how damaging criticism can be, Dr. Gottman doesn’t attempt to define any criticism as “good.” Rather, he simply puts all criticism into the negative — and instead introduces another type of way to assess an issue: “a complaint.”
The difference? In Gottman’s approach, criticism “is often expressed in a way that suggests a character flaw. It focuses on who a person is rather than what a person has done,” writes Zach Brittle, a Seattle-based certified Gottman therapist and podcaster of “Marriage Therapy Radio”. “A complaint, however, is different. It focuses on the action… A well-placed complaint is okay, and sometimes very necessary, in a relationship.”
So how do we talk about our complaints in a way that doesn’t turn into criticism? Turns out, there’s a formula. Dr. Julie Gottman (the wife of Dr. John Gottman) explains that couples who did it right took three steps:
1. They started by using the word “I”: I’m upset; I’m frustrated; I’m irate; I’m annoyed.
Their initial statement describes their own personal reaction — not a criticism of the partner. They’re not hiding their emotions — they’re being vulnerable by sharing them.
2. The couples then proceeded to state their feelings based on something factual — separate from their partner:I’m upset the garbage hasn’t been taken out; I’m frustrated that there’s mud everywhere; I am irate that the bill wasn’t paid yet.
Again, the partner isn’t attacked in these statements. Sure, the partner might be responsible that that bill wasn’t paid or that the garbage wasn’t taken out, but the speaker is describing the situation, not their partner.
3. Finally, they stated what they needed — or explained what they wished for:I need you to help with the garbage in the morning so we can take it to the curb before the garbage truck skips our house.
As Dr. Julie Gottman puts it, this kind of statement reflects someone that has asked, “How could their partner shine for them?”
Not only is this a kinder way of speaking with your partner, but psychologically, it’s actually more effective. “Criticism fails because it embodies two of the things that human beings hate the most,” Stonsy writes. “It calls for submission, and we hate to submit. It devalues, and we hate to feel devalued.”
He goes on to explain that most people do actually love to cooperate — but only if they feel valued. “Critical people seem oblivious to this key point about human nature: The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists,” he says.
And when it comes to those you love, these inclinations are doubly important. Your partner really will want to cooperate if they’re feeling valued — but they’ll really resist (show contempt, stonewall, or become defensive) if they’re devalued.
Keep the 5:1 ratio in mind.
Remember how I said Dr. Gottman could predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy? Well, turns out one of the keys to his research boiled down to simple mathematical ratios. Essentially, for every negative exchange a happy couple experiences, there would be five positive exchanges. For couples who struggled or later would later divorce, there were more negative exchanges than positive (with a ratio of one to 0.8).
Why? Turns out, our brains have negative biases. We remember the negative much more clearly. If we think about the most embarrassing parts of our lives, the emotions just come flooding back. Researchers believe this is because our brains were adapted to survive and avoid danger — you know, like panthers lurking outside our shelter, or the smell of poisonous berries.
So it’s a helpful pattern to attend to. The 5:1 ratio can serve as a measuring stick against which to measure a day or a week’s worth of interactions with someone. This ratio can be adopted in other parts of our lives, too, from parenting, to business, to choosing how to spend our free time. It’s transformative — especially when we remember the power of words.
Go forth and do your best.
All this is going to require a bit of grace, as well as a readiness to forgive ourselves and others. Because let’s be real: we’re going to mess up a little. We’re human. We get tired. We get hungry. We get distracted. And we’ll eventually say something that will arrive as a terrible, horrible, no-good criticism.
Yet if you become conscious of the sources of your criticisms, if you learn to separate criticism from complaint, and if you foster relationships with five times more affirmations than complaints, you’ll bounce back. And probably rather quickly.