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o one likes to receive criticism or complaints. Especially when a person is well-intentioned, hardworking, devoted, and otherwise “good,” he or she may feel that others don’t have the right to nitpick on minor lapses.

“After all I do for my kids, sacrificing each day to see to it that they have every little thing they need at all times, I really do not want to hear that they ‘hate’ the supper I made for them!”

 

Careful Criticism

This parent is right in one regard: People need to express criticism with sensitivity and respect. While a child is allowed to feel whatever he feels (and there’s not much he can do about disliking certain foods!), he can still choose whether or not to express his feelings — and he can certainly choose his words carefully.

It’s undoubtedly far easier for a parent to hear a carefully crafted complaint such as “Mom, I know you do so much for us and I appreciate the dinners you work so hard to prepare, but I’m wondering if you could stop making meatloaf. Even though I know how much love you put into it, I just don’t like meatloaf.”

Okay, so real children don’t talk quite like that, but they can be taught to speak respectfully! However, even when a child complains with sensitivity, Mom’s feelings might still be hurt. If she lacks the necessary skills, her retort might be as insensitive and unkind as the original complaint:

“...so I told them, if you hate it that much, then you guys can make dinner because I’m sick and tired of trying to come up with something that everyone will eat!”

When people feel attacked, their less civilized parts may rise to the defense. For this reason, parents sometimes end up modeling reactivity instead of relationship-wise ways of handling criticism.

 

Refusal to Listen

Many people refuse to let negative feedback get off the ground.

“When I try to raise an issue with my husband, he refuses to even let me finish a sentence. Right away, he tells me he doesn’t want to hear all my complaints — although he never actually lets me say a single one!

“If I manage to get out one sentence, he raises his voice so loud that all the neighbors can hear, telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about. He knows that I’ll stop talking when he yells since Idon’t want anyone hearing us fight, so he does this on purpose all the time. If I continue trying to get my point across, he usually walks out on me, telling me that he ‘doesn’t have to listen to this.’ He’s more interested in defending and protecting himself than he is in having a real marriage.”

 

I’m Okay, You’re Okay

It takes a fair amount of self-confidence to be able to listen to others complain about us. We have to believe that we’re good, even when we’re wrong, and we need to accept that at times we’ll be wrong. We have to be willing to look at the world through the other person’s point of view and acknowledge the validity of their point of view, even when we disagree. We need to be strong enough that we don’t feel threatened by the other person’s displeasure with us and yet flexible enough to be able to accomodate someone else’s wishes or needs.

Unfortunately, many of us panic when someone doesn’t like what we’ve said or done. We instinctively attempt to render them bad and wrong so the threat is dispelled as quickly as possible. While we may be very good at doing this, our relationships suffer intensely from this strategy.

You can help yourself out of your highly defensive position by practicing “exposure therapy.” Here’s how: Next time a child or spouse issues a complaint, accept it. Just say something like, “Thanks for telling me; I’ll see what I can do about that.” Then stop talking and look around. See if everything is still in its place and if your body is still intact. Really look so that you can see and feel that you are safe and sound, even after receiving and accepting the complaint.

Doing this repeatedly can help turn off the fight-or-flight response that has become tied to the experience of negative feedback. Once you’ve accomplished that, you and your relationships will flourish. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 604)