Criticism: What We Are REALLY Saying

20140109-053055.jpgWhen we criticize someone, what we are actually saying is this:

“I want you to feel uncomfortable, self-conscious, and to focus on hiding your fault instead of interacting every time you are around me from this moment forward. I want to make it just a little harder for you to be vulnerable, not only with me but with everyone else.”

When we find fault, we do not set someone on the right path towards changing the very thing that we do not like about them. We actually make it harder. Change and growth come so much easier when we make it safe for others to fail without fear of rejection or criticism.

This doesn’t mean that we have to just put up with problems caused by others or that we shouldn’t intervene when we see someone we care about behaving in self-destructive ways. But how we approach the problem can leave someone feeling empowered or insecure.

A recent study actually backs up this premise. Described in great detail in the Harvard Review, the study conducted by Richard Boyatzis, revealed that focusing on dreams and goals made it easier to change. Imagine the power of something so simple – helping someone focusing on the possibilities, on hope instead of their faults and failings – can actually evoke the change we want to see in them. It really is possible to be the good guy and still address problems.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was brainstorming how to address a problem behavior with an employee. Her initial thought was to point it out directly, but after talking a bit more, we arrived at what might be causing the employee’s annoying habit. She found a way to resolve that problem for the employee, and not only did the annoying behavior go away, but her employee ended up feeling more empowered in their role in her company.

The next time we think we are helping someone improve by pointing out what we see as the problem, we should take a step back and try to find a way to be supportive. Change is scary, and if we can create an environment of trust and care, we will make it easier for others to feel safer to risk trying to change, to feel safe risking failure.

A very interesting study recently published indicates that at least for women, the very fact of being overweight causes a dislike of exercise on a very core level. Why? Fear of failing at the exercise, of feeling awkward or not being able to do what the rest of people exercising are capable of accomplishing. The next time you think you’re helping motivate someone who needs to lose a few pounds by pointing out that fact, think about that. They know they’re overweight. They see it every time they look in the mirror or put their clothes on. Or do much of anything. No one is surprised when someone else points out they’re fat. Try making them feel safe enough to risk new activities, new habits. It may work wonders.

I’ve recently started a fit class with a small group of women that is led by one of the most positive people I’ve ever met. She is constantly pointing out and praising small successes. She expresses her belief in us as a group and individually. She asks us questions about how we are doing in the middle of trying something new and encourages us to take risks to challenge ourselves. I have yet to hear her find fault or criticize someone for how they look or what they can’t do. Because of this, I feel safe for the first time to look awkward, to fail when trying someone new – and, for the first time, I am looking forward to exercising. And it is working – eleven pounds lost in a little over a month. She has succeeded in helping me change where criticism never would have worked.

The next time we’re tempted to point out a fault, to criticize, it would pay to remember that it likely won’t accomplish what we want – it will, in fact, make it harder. Help someone else focus on their dreams, of what might be possible, and see what happens. Oh, and by the way … this works for ourselves, too.

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