- Mental Health
Harsh Criticism vs. Caring Confrontation
Communicating With or Without Respect
Communicating difficult thoughts and feelings in personal and work relationships can be done with or without respect. Communicating without respect comes across as cold, harsh and hurtful; and damages relationships and our own self esteem. Communicating with respect is received as warm, caring and helpful; and enhances relationships and self esteem.
Harsh Criticism Hurts
Communicating without respect is often known as harsh criticism. There are a number of thoughts and feelings related to expressing harsh criticism that make it seem, not only acceptable, but necessary and even pleasurable. These are short term rewards that can lead us to believe that this kind of communication is effective. The old adage, “short term gain, long term pain” applies here. In other words, while there are definitely some short term rewards to communicating without respect, there are longer term negative consequences to consider as well.
Criticizing harshly and without respect is often done from a sense of low self worth and feelings of inadequacy; a sense of not being good enough in the eyes of another. A person who is feeling “less than” or is in this “zero state,” may try desperately to feel better, and may mistakenly believe that putting others down will help him or her feel better. These intense feelings of shame and rage are often at the root of a verbal lashing.
Sometimes we feel justified in using harsh criticism. We get a sense of “moral indignation” in which we believe we are right and the other person is wrong, and we have a moral obligation to set them straight – for their own good and for the greater good! We assume a role of moral superiority in which we are better than others because of our morality. We are playing God.
Harsh criticism focuses on blame. It tells a person what they are doing wrong and what not to do. It doesn’t tell them what to do to correct the wrong. Often it doesn’t even point out what is wrong, but focuses on how stupid and incompetent the person is! It leaves a person feeling blamed and shamed, and ill equipped to do better.
Some people respond to criticism by closing up and shutting down. They stop listening. They stop doing. (If I can’t do anything right, why bother?). They stop talking. Others respond to criticism with anger and retaliation. They fight back directly or seek indirect ways to get even.
Caring Confrontation involves communicating our thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, ideas and observations in a respectful manner that does not put others down. It is challenging to communicate with respect when strong feelings and emotions are involved. Although caring confrontation does require effort and self discipline, the benefits are many and are worthwhile.
Caring confrontation is not aggressive. It is like holding a mirror up to show someone how you see them. When I confront someone, I am comparing what I see with what they see. For example, “I realize you enjoy giving to others and being generous, but you were late paying the bills. I think it would be better if you would make sure the bills are paid first. Sometimes, your generosity comes across as trying too hard to impress people, too. I’d like to talk to you about that.”
Although it can feel awkward and is difficult to do, caring confrontation is easier to listen to than harsh criticism. It is more likely that a person will listen to your message when you use caring confrontation. If the same message had been delivered harshly it would sound like, “You screwed up the bills again. You’re always trying to show off and impress people!” The harsh criticism leaves a person feeling badly, not knowing what to do, closed and not willing to listen to you or your message; and probably planning a counter attack!
Criticism tells a person what they have not done – paid the bills. Confrontation provides information, and a person can do something with the information they receive, if they choose to. Confrontation respects the others’ freedom to choose and make their own choices. The person might choose to pay the bills first from now on, may continue to give to others first, or may be somewhat more conscientious about bills and still give generously to others. Likewise, if not paying the bills on time is a relationship breaker for me, I can let that be known in a firm and caring way, and consider whether or not to continue the relationship if the behavior continues. The other person can use the information to consider my feelings and their value of our relationship in their decision making.
True friends confront each other and care about each others’ feelings. Many people believe that a friend is “always nice” and that confronting a person is not nice. They will avoid confrontation at all cost, and allow harmful and destructive behaviors to continue unchecked. What they are really avoiding is harsh criticism and verbal aggression that they may have experienced in the past.
Caring confrontation allows a friendship to flourish, and promotes growth and change. People who use caring confrontation spend less time upset and angry, and more time doing things they care about. People who use confrontation are generally more positive, caring and happy.