Nkem Says: Fine Line Between Negative Criticism & Constructive Communication
I have been having bursts of vertigo lately, and upon recommendation from my doctor – Google, I decided to take a whole day’s rest. As you would imagine, just about 3 hours into bed rest I grew utterly bored and thought to go through my WhatsApp for messages I may have overlooked or failed to respond to. Those who know me will tell you that I am the absolute worst with chatting or texting. Unless it is work related, or I like you a whole lot, I probably will not chat for long or respond to your chat/text really. While scrolling through, I saw a message from an acquaintance that just said: “Nkem ooh!”…I didn’t know what to make of it, so I decided to reach out to her via phone call.
After preliminary greetings and catch ups, she said that she had sent that message to get my opinion on something, but I did not have to worry anymore, as she had already resolved the matter. Of course, I apologised for not responding early enough, but cajoled her to let me in on what it was and how she resolved the matter. She went on to narrate an incident between her and a guy she had been dating for a while. They had had an argument where she “communicated” to the guy her thoughts on how he always conducted himself socially and how he needed to work on it – the dude had no clue what the phrase “personal space” meant and didn’t know when to stop talking in social situations.Instead of listening, however, the dude was defensive and referred to her as been overly critical. According to her, it was not the first time they had had the conversation. Her intent was to help him realise a major weakness that was ruining his social image and get him to work on it towards being a better person; he saw it as her being judgmental, controlling and critical of him.
Of course, her intentions seemed noble and all, but listening to her, it was clear that her definition of “communicating” may have been a little flawed. While communicating her thoughts to him on the issue which was “being a loudmouth’, she had gone further to attack his character and who he was. Somehow, she had crossed the line and focused on his person instead of his actions, making him angry, defensive and hurt.
She was “communicating” from a place of frustration and disappointment, and mostly for her own benefit: she felt that he was a little too garrulous and unlikable. She was uncomfortable with his behaviour, so he had to listen to a lecture, psychoanalysing his motives for acting that way. Her “communicating” was designed more to improve him, so that he doesn’t embarrass her.
While communicating, she failed to offer a solution or helpful tip to help solve the problem, so it all came off as though she was just venting or even laying blames. The interesting part was that his being defensive about the matter frustrated her to the point that she now low-key resents him and is disconnected from him emotionally. She informed me that her resolve was to let him wallow in his ways, since he “doesn’t listen” and she’d move on “when it is time”.
There is a thin line between communicating and criticising; if you do not know the subtleties that differentiate them, you are bound to make a mess of the former, and cause your relationship more harm than good. In every relationship, you have a right to ask for the things you need in the relationship; it is even a responsibility to yourself and your partner to be clear about your needs. However, communication should involve three things: a clear and objective statement of the issue/problem; a detailed, yet specific and reckonable request for change; and a reference to how solving the problem would benefit the relationship. Proper communication offers both partners a chance for self-reflection rather than shaming and blaming the other. Criticism, on the other hand, focuses on complaining bitterly, laying blames, or psychologizing each other.
You raise an issue from a place of superiority, highlighting it as a defect in your partner’s personality or character, also belittling him/her, based on only one “right way” to do things. There is no focus on improvement, as criticism lacks a true solution to the immediate problems…. meaning that the issue will continue to linger and ultimately the couple will suffer a downward energy spiral, and possibly a loss of connection.
A number of us are adept at criticism, as we tend to speak from emotion and frustrations; we hardly care for the implications. When you hear yourself use phrases such as “you never” or “you always”, chances are you are criticizing.
This is not to say that no one should ever criticize their partner. There is such a thing as constructive criticism, and if your partner is the kind who is mature enough to ask for it and receive it calmly, then by all means. But when it becomes constant and unproductive, it can pave the way for contempt. You start to hold your partner in a negative light without giving them the benefit of the doubt… and before you know it, the foundation of your partnership is eroded. Instead of saying something like: “You never know when to shut up in conversations with other people. You’re so annoying!”, you can say something like: “I was really upset last night when you took over every conversation at the get together last night, talking even when everyone had moved on and just wanted to watch the movie in peace. Can you please try to let others share their opinion next time, so I don’t always feel like I have to cut in or give you a sign every time we are out? Having to do that would be exhausting.” Doesn’t that sound better? Chances are the reaction and response to both questions would be completely different.
The bottom line is: Criticism is hardly effective and it can be damaging to relationships. Proper communication, however, can help you and your partner grow and move forward in your relationship. It is important, though, to keep in mind the fact that asking your partner to become who you want them to be, can be a very daunting exercise. You can’t change anybody. People change because they want to change. The best you can do is frame things in such a way that you inform him/her of the effects of their behaviors on you without attacking or insulting their personality and telling them they are wrong. Yes, they could absolutely improve their life and your relationship if they were to change or work on that problem/issue, but there really is no value to criticizing them. Your job is to accept them (quirks and all), and not change them.
Have you ever found yourself criticizing rather than communicating? Do you find your partner constantly criticizing rather than communicating? share your experiences and thoughts!c