The 4 Toxins That Make Your Life Hard – Criticism
Most of us know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of criticism and blame. Most of us have also been the one to issue blame and criticism – sometimes camouflaged as well intended feedback.
Not the effect we want
We know what it feels like and it is not the best of feelings. Despite good intentions, blame and criticism rarely have the effect we want, nor does it support people to be at their best. It can build cultures of silence, fear, and negativity within our relationships – both at work and in life. When you hold back and avoid speaking up for fear of being ridiculed or when you have just had it with a certain set of behaviors or incomplete tasks, toxic communication can run freely. Sound familiar?
We recognize the above, but what do we do when this system is within ourselves and our own mind? When our “inside team” is in conflict and the different parts of who we get busy blaming and criticizing one another and telling us how bad we are?
What is at play are toxic ways of communicating that are as counterproductive to our relationships as they are to our self-esteem.
Insight from research
Research done over almost five decades by Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., psychologist, author, and researcher, informs us about the four most toxic behaviors in communication: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. In fact, these are so lethal to our relationships that Dr. Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Dr. Gottman’s research through the Gottman Institute has primarily been geared towards couples and partnerships, but we see that much of his material applies to the corporate world as well.
Having insight into the toxins and how to handle them more constructively has a huge positive impact on all the different systems we are part of and especially on our relationship with ourselves. Having a constant chatter of toxic communication going on inside you will erode your self-esteem and self-confidence. As you read about the toxin below, pause for a moment and see if you can recognize when they show up within you. When do you blame or criticize yourself? What do you say?
When you can identify the toxins, you will have more awareness of how you contribute to their presence and of how to avoid, or at least reduce, their negative effect. Let’s dive in, starting with the one we all know too well.
Toxin 1: Blame/Criticism
Blame and criticism consist of attacking a person (whether yourself or someone else) instead of naming the behavior that caused the situation. Does this mean you should not issue complaints when complaints are due? No. Note that there is an important difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint addresses a specific failed action, while a criticism adds negative words about the person’s character or personality. A complaint is turned into criticism by saying “you are always late”, or “you never deliver on time”. Add a specific tone of voice, facial expression or body language to statements like these, and the criticism is complete.
Behind every complaint, blame or criticism lies a wish or longing that either has not been articulated or has not been heard. When you find yourself on the receiving end of this, practice listening for the wish or the need behind what is being said. Avoid the temptation to defend yourself.
Instead of voicing blame or criticism, practice creating more constructive interactions by using “I” statements and put words to what you want, not to what you don’t want.
When am I critical of myself or others? What outcome do I want? How can I state my needs in a clear and positive way?
What is next?
Pay attention to where and how criticism and blame show up in your life. What do you keep telling yourself? Listen for the words and sentences that are on repeat. What is your inner narrative? Is it a supporting voice or a monster screaming that you will never be better at x, y, z?
How can I communicate what needs to be communicated without resorting to blaming or criticism?
What new behavior will I step into that will improve my relationship with myself and others?
Check out my article on defensiveness – the second of the four toxins.