Effective Communication: Criticism vs Complaint

Criticism. Let’s be honest, we are all guilty of this. Remember the time you said,

“You’re always playing video games. You don’t care to spend any time with me!”

“You’re so lazy. Why don’t you ever clean up after yourself? I’m sick of doing the dishes when I come home from work.”

“You’re always out with your friends.”

“You never listen to anything I say.”

Yup, these are all criticisms. According to John Gottman, criticisms tend to be global statements which convey a negative sentiment about a person. Anytime you catch yourself using words like “you always” or “you never”, recognize that you’re pointing out a fault in your partner’s character because you’re basically indicating if they’re always or never doing something, then they must have a faulty part in their personality. Not a great feeling is it, if you were on the receiving end? A conversation that starts with a criticism is bound to go down south. Additionally, saying words like “always” or “never” shifts your partner’s focus on defending themselves by pointing out exceptions to when they did/didn’t do something instead of focusing on understanding what you are actually trying to convey.

Then how do I convey how [insert feeling] I am? In the form of a complaint. Let’s break down the components that form a complaint (yes, there are components). Gottman says complaints usually comprise of the following three components: (1) how you feel, (2) about a specific situation, and (3) what you need and/or your request.

Let’s take the examples of criticisms above and turn them into complaints:

“You were playing video games for two hours last night (specific incident) while I waited for you. I felt so disconnected and alone (feeling). I understand you like to decompress by playing games. Can you please set a time to decompress and a time to spend together before we go to bed (request)?”

“I’m so frustrated right now (your feeling). I cleaned up all the dishes piled up in the sink this evening (specific incident). I need your help in keeping the kitchen clean (need). Can we please take turns every night to clean the dishes (request)?”

“I felt disappointed (your feeling) when you spent this whole weekend with your friends (specific incident)It’s important for me that we spend time together as a family (need). Will you please spend the next weekend with us (request)?”

“It makes me angry when I think you’re not listening to me (your feeling). I feel like you didn’t care right now when I was telling you about what happened at work today (specific incident). Can you please turn off the T.V. (request)? I need someone to talk to right now (need).”

I know what you’re thinking: Who talks like this?! This isn’t realistic…easier said than done. The point here is to LEARN to talk like this. If you have something to say, why not make it count by learning how to explain your feelings and your needs/wants in a CLEAR and EFFECTIVE manner. It will not be easy in the beginning – it might even feel silly. Eventually, it will come naturally to you and become second nature to communicate this way. You have nothing to lose but a lot to gain…so give it a try!

And bear in mind, this is not the cure all to relationship troubles. This is just one way to try to improve on your own till you enlist the help of a professional.

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