For the Recorder
Published: 9/5/2022 11:27:43 AM
Modified: 9/5/2022 11:23:56 AM
In my last column, “The Golden Nugget of Wisdom Inside Criticism,” I brought to light how feeling the impulse to criticize our spouse/partner is very common. It is even accepted as being a “normal” way to communicate when we are upset. I suggested that instead, we can learn to recognize when critical thoughts cross our mind, and become curious about them. Only by taking a deeper look inside ourselves can we begin to find the “golden nugget” - the needs we have buried under the criticism that are calling for our attention.
When we begin to understand that criticism is actually a strategy for trying to get needs met, this awareness can be a turning point in our relational lives. On a personal note, that’s how it was for me. I used to find myself feeling like a “victim” to other people’s behavior. If I believed I was not treated well and fairly, I found myself obsessing over critical thoughts about the person being “selfish,” “uncaring,” “rude,” etc. This left me feeling miserable and disempowered.
Upon learning about how my criticism of the other was actually linked to some unmet needs I had, I was able to acknowledge my particular needs in those situations, which were consideration, kindness and respect. I then felt unstuck and realized I could express what my needs were to the person, and do so without using critical words.
Let’s return to the example from my last column of a spouse whose job demands working many extra hours, often into the evening. The other partner, being quite unhappy with this situation, might blurt out a criticism such as “You always come home so late! You really don’t care about spending any time with me, do you?”
As you might imagine, this outburst would likely intensify emotions on both sides. It’s quite possible that the interaction could quickly escalate into mutual hurt and anger, which leaves both partners feeling drained and distant.
When we get upset about what our partner, friend or family member says or does, we naturally want to be listened to and taken seriously. In an effort to be heard, we might hurl criticism at our partner, along with other strategies that I consider to be close cousins to criticism. These include yelling, getting defensive, blaming, provoking guilt, interrupting, shaming and being stubborn. I am here to tell you that these ways of reacting never work, and they always make matters much worse. Perhaps this rings true with your own experience?
Let’s talk about what you can do instead of criticizing your partner or anyone else in your life. In my many years of exploration and training regarding the most effective ways for partners to communicate when distressed, I have found “The Four Part Formula” that I believe is truly the best way to maximize our chances of truly being heard. The Four Part Formula is taken from an approach called NonViolent Communication (NVC), which was created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, and is taught all over the world.
The Four Part Formula:
Part 1) Your observation of what happened - what the person said or did
Part 2) Your feelings - the various feelings you have such as hurt, sad, scared, etc.
“I feel…” or “I felt…”
Part 3) Your needs
“because I am needing/wanting…”
Part 4) A request that you have (must be clear and doable)
“Would you be willing to…?”
Let’s apply this Four Part Formula to my earlier example :
Part 1: When you come home at 9:00 pm from work Monday through Friday,
Part 2: I feel very sad and lonely
Part 3: because I am needing more connection and quality time with you.
Part 4: Would you be willing to figure out together how it could be possible to come home earlier once or twice a week?
So, there it is. A way to express yourself without the destructive strategies of criticism, judgment, shame, blame, etc. We are steeped in a culture where criticism and right-and-wrong thinking are pervasive in how we are taught to deal with differences or unmet needs. It may not be easy to shake the tendency to have critical thoughts.
Starting using the formula, you might be wondering “How can I remember to use it when I am upset?” That’s a good question. When we are flooded with emotion, how can it be possible to think of doing something other than reacting automatically with criticism?
Here’s how: it might take a bit of effort at first, but when you are having a “negative” response to what your partner has said or done, make it a habit to stop and take a healthy pause, before you communicate. Focus on being self-aware and notice if you are having a critical thought about your partner. Perhaps it will be mid-sentence when you realize that criticism is in motion and starting to shoot out of your mouth. In this case, you can pause and say “Actually, I am going to start over. What I really want to say is…” and then follow the Four Part Formula.
Understandably, the thought of using a formula might be a turn-off at first. It could feel awkward; it takes effort and it requires the willingness to try something different from what you are used to. Since it does take thoughtfulness and skill to communicate effectively, using this formula becomes a conscious choice to try something new, even if it is uncomfortable at first. With practice, it does become easier and easier to incorporate this formula into your communication when times are tough. And it truly pays off.
When a couple shifts from a relationship fraught with criticism to one that embraces the expression of feelings, needs and requests, they will undoubtedly transform their relationship. Feelings and needs of both partners become welcome in their conversations. Requests can easily be made. When partners listen to each other with respect for each other’s feelings and needs, it creates ‘mutual attunement’. Each partner is able to tune in to their own inner landscape of feelings and needs, while being interested and curious about the other’s inner landscape as well.
Mutual attunement naturally allows partners to have a deeper understanding of each other. The result? They will experience increased mutual support, emotional intimacy and closeness. Isn’t this what we humans long for and enjoy? I have seen many couples who, after being stuck in cycles of destructive communication and sometimes decades of not feeling heard by each other, have been able to successfully use this formula. They then move into mutual understanding, deep relief (to finally be heard and understood) and transformation.
What the formula offers is the ability to reveal oneself through expressing one’s feelings and needs. Self-revelation can take courage; it requires a willingness to be vulnerable. As Brene Brown, a psychologist with expertise on the topic of vulnerability, states: “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” In closing, here’s my question to you: Can you find the courage to be vulnerable and express your feelings and needs? You have nothing to lose but your criticism, and you just might gain tremendous health and fulfillment in your relationship. I’ll be cheering you on.
Note: a list of universal needs can be found at https://baynvc.org/list-of-needs.
To learn more about NVC, Dr. Rosenberg’s book is “NonViolent Communication: A Way of Life.”
Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with NonViolent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.