Diane Sawyer recently appeared on Oprah Winfrey's new "Master Class" series and shared a simple yet powerful perspective on criticism that she learned from a series of interviews with women about marriage. One of the women responded to Diane's questions with something so powerfully simple that it should be required thinking for us all: "Criticism is just a bad way to make a request."
The not-so-obvious point behind any criticism or complaint is the fact that the critic really wants something to be different. Rather than make the request directly, it comes out as a complaint or criticism. It seems these days that many of us are more skilled at telling the other person what is wrong than asking for what we would like.
Perhaps you have you noticed how much easier it is to criticize than it is to create? For many critics, it would appear that not only is the glass half-empty, but there's something wrong with the glass! As I noted in an earlier column, we have become a nation of whiners, with many seemingly content to complain and blame rather than become directly engaged in the solution.
Criticism Is a Close Cousin of Complaint
In an earlier post on the subject, I suggested that complaints often contain hidden contributions that could be made but are lost in the rancor of the complainer. If you look on the half-full side of the complainer, you might find two positive yet hidden qualities. First, if you are the complainer/critic, then at least you need to care enough to even notice, let along complain! Second, you need to be creative enough to imagine an improved situation. However, most critic/complainers seem unwilling or unable to move past the complaint about what's wrong and into the positive actions necessary to bring about the positive change they would prefer.
In my book "Workarounds That Work," I suggest a simple way to turn your own complaints into something positive. The next time you find yourself complaining, ask yourself, "What difference can I make that requires no one's permission other than my own?" No doubt you will come up with small, perhaps seemingly insignificant steps that you can take, steps unlikely to completely fix the situation; however, small improvements are better than none at all. The same question can be asked of someone who is complaining to you; posing the question can have the effect of turning the negativity of complaint into positive action.
You can apply the same change strategy to criticism. Some part of me is a naturally skilled critic who can look at darn near anything and see how it can be improved. The good news is that I can often see areas of improvement. The bad news is that my observations often come out as criticisms -- statements about what is wrong, why it won't work, etc. Even worse, these critical observations are often correct!
Perhaps you also possess that critical-thinking gene. Many of us seem to carry criticism as a core competency and wear that "ability" as some kind of badge of intelligence. Anyone out there not have enough criticism in your life? I suspect that very few of the people you know are looking forward to their next dose of "constructive criticism."
How to Deal with Your Natural Critic
Marshall Rosenberg, founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication, put it this way: "We criticize people for not giving us what we ourselves are afraid to ask for."
If you find yourself in the role of natural critic, you probably are pretty good at criticizing your own self as well as others. Better, in fact. Without going into whatever underlying psychological issues helped you become such a good critic, here's a suggestion for moving from criticism to positive action.
One piece of advice in my "Workarounds" book could help here: consider the possibility that how you frame the problem is the problem. If your focus is on what's wrong, you may find yourself in a downward spiral of it's-worse-than-that thinking. To get yourself out of that downward trajectory, reframe the issue from the object of criticism (you're wrong, they're wrong, that's not being done right, etc) into what it would look like if the situation were to improve.
Rather than telling someone as non-specific as they are slow or a bad team player, start by imagining what it would be like if things were to improve. With an improvement focus in mind, you can invite the other person into the role of solution-provider rather than problem-creator and the object of criticism.
"I would really like it if we could find ways to get this project moving more quickly and meet our commitments. What ideas do you have to speed things up?" By reframing the person as a solution-provider and asking for their creative thoughts, you may discover contributions that he or she can make. In fact, you may discover that the "slowness" in the other person really comes from an attention to detail that you had not seen before, or that they are encountering roadblocks in the system that prevent them from moving faster.
You won't discover either facet of the other person if you come from criticism and half-empty thinking. As Diane Sawyer pointed out in her "Master Class" interview with Oprah, one of the most useful traits we can acquire to overcome the critic in each of us is to acquire and embrace a sense of curiosity.
How about trying an experiment this week, or even just today: the next time you find yourself criticizing yourself or another person, reframe the criticism as a bit of inquiry while making your hidden request more transparent: "I'm really focused on getting this project done more quickly. What do you see going on? Is there something that you are experiencing that makes it difficult to get there?" You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover, both about yourself as well as the other person.
What do you think about the increasing volume of complaints and criticism out there? How are you faring in this sea of criticism? Please leave a comment here or drop me an e-mail at Russell@russellbishop.com.
If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your own life, how you can take simple steps that may wind up transforming your own life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact him by e-mail at Russell@russellbishop.com.