In my last column, “The Golden Nugget of Wisdom Within Criticism,” I brought to light how it’s all too common to feel the urge to criticize your spouse/partner. It is even accepted as a “normal” way of communicating when we are upset. Instead, I suggested, we can learn to recognize when critical thoughts cross our minds and be curious about them. Only by looking deeper within ourselves can we begin to find the “golden nugget”: the needs that we have buried under the criticisms that catch our attention.
When we begin to understand that criticism is actually a strategy for trying to get needs met, this realization can be a turning point in our relational lives. Personally, that’s how it was for me. I used to feel like a “victim” of other people’s behavior. If I believed that I was not being treated well and fairly, I would obsess over critical thoughts about the person being “selfish,” “indifferent,” “rude,” etc. This made me feel miserable and powerless.
By learning how my criticism of the other was actually linked to some unmet needs I had, I was able to recognize my particular needs in those situations, which were consideration, kindness, and respect. Then I felt detached and realized that I could express what my needs were to the person, and do so without using critical words.
Let’s go back to the example from my last column of a spouse whose job requires working a lot of overtime, often into the night. The other partner, being quite unhappy with this situation, might blurt out a criticism like “You always come home so late! You really don’t mind spending time with me, do you?
As you can imagine, this outburst would likely intensify emotions on both sides. The interaction may very well quickly turn into mutual hurt and anger, leaving 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 heard and taken seriously. In an effort to be heard, we may criticize our partner, along with other strategies that I consider close cousins to criticism. These include yelling, defensiveness, blaming, guilt-provoking, interrupting, shaming, and being stubborn. I am here to tell you that these ways of reacting never work and always make things 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 exploring and training regarding the most effective ways for partners to communicate when in distress, I found “The Four-Part Formula” which I believe is truly the best way to maximize our chances of being truly heard. The four-part formula is taken from an approach called Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which was created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and is taught around the world.
The four-part formula:
Part 1) His observation of what happened – what the person said or did
Part 2) His feelings – the various feelings you have, such as pain, sadness, fear, etc.
“I feel…” or “I felt…”
Part 3) His needs
“because I am needing/wanting…”
Part 4) To request what do you have (must be clear and doable)
“Would you be willing to…?”
Let’s apply this four-part formula to my previous example:
Part 1: When you get home at 9:00 pm from work Monday through Friday,
Part 2: I feel very sad and alone
Part 3: because I’m needing more connection and quality time with you.
Part 4: Would you be willing to discover together how it would 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 immersed in a culture where criticism and right and wrong thinking dominate the way we are taught to deal with differences or unmet needs. It may not be easy to get rid of the tendency to have critical thoughts.
As you begin to use the formula, you may be wondering “How can I remember to use it when I’m upset?” Good question. When we are overwhelmed with emotion, how can we possibly think of doing anything other than automatically reacting with criticism?
Here’s how: It may take a bit of effort at first, but when you have a “no” response to what your partner has said or done, get in the habit of Stop and have a healthy pause, prior to you communicate. Focus on being self-aware and notice if you think critically about your partner. It may be mid-sentence that you realize the criticism is on the move and starts to shoot out of your mouth. In this case, you can pause and say “Actually, I’m going to start over. What I really mean is…” and then follow the four-part formula.
It’s understandable that the idea of using a formula can be a turnoff at first. You might feel uncomfortable; it requires effort and the willingness to try something different than what you are used to. Since it takes thoughtfulness and skill to communicate effectively, using this formula becomes a conscious choice to try something new, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. With practice, it becomes easier and easier to incorporate this formula into your communication when times are tough. And it really is worth it.
When a couple moves from a critically charged relationship to one that accepts the expression of feelings, needs, and requests, they will undoubtedly transform their relationship. The feelings and needs of both partners become welcome in their conversations. Requests can be made easily. When partners listen to each other with respect for each other’s feelings and needs, “mutual attunement” is created. Each member of the couple is able to tune in to their own inner landscape of feelings and needs, while being interested and curious about the inner landscape of the other.
Mutual attunement naturally allows partners to have a deeper understanding of each other. The result? You will experience greater mutual support, emotional intimacy, and closeness. Isn’t this what we humans crave 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 use this formula successfully. They then move on to mutual understanding, deep relief (to finally be heard and understood), and transformation.
What the formula offers is the ability to reveal yourself through the expression of your own feelings and needs. Self-disclosure may require courage; it requires a willingness to be vulnerable. As Brene Brown, a psychologist with a background in vulnerability, states: “Vulnerability is not weakness; It is our greatest measure of courage.” In closing, this is my question to you: Can you find the courage to be vulnerable and express your feelings and needs? You have nothing to lose except your criticism, and you may find 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.
For more information on 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 then trained in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with Nonviolent Communication, which serves as the foundation of her job as a Relationship Coach. . For more information, visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.