The other day I met with Jen, a bride who’s frustrated with her fiancé Jack’s lack of involvement in the planning of their 2015 wedding. As I listened to her, I began to tune her out because her “concerns” were basically a litany of criticisms. She was so shrill that I wondered why she was marrying Jack if he was such a lazy lout. When I asked her that exact question, she stared at me, puzzled that I’d doubt her choice of a husband.
Jen claimed that she loved Jack and then proceeded to recite another litany – of all the good he does. He sounded entirely different from the fiancé she’d been criticizing! She was caught off guard when I pointed this out and shocked when I told her that I’d been ready to end the meeting, as I couldn't listen to her criticisms.
All I could think was – if I had a hard time listening to her, what must it be like for Jack?!
Tara Parker-Pope, blogger for The New York Times “Well” section, offers what I think is a critical insight into what makes for a “successful” argument.
Her research on marriage shows that one of the main differences between a “good fight” and a “bad fight” is whether a person begins with a complaint or a criticism. For example, "I wish you went with me to see more vendors" is a complaint as opposed to "You never show any interest in planning the ceremony. What's wrong with you?" which is a criticism.
Which of those two do you think is harsher? Read the sentences again and pay attention to the choice of words. Imagine how you would say each sentence to your partner.
In the first sentence you’re “complaining”—meaning you’re letting your partner know how you feel as a result of their disappointing behavior.
In the second sentence, you’re “criticizing”—meaning you’re attacking your partner and so he or she has only two choices—shut down or lash out.
The first sentence begins with “I” and the second sentence begins with “you.” In the first, you’re taking responsibility for how you’re feeling, while in the second you’re nastily attacking.
Think back on your last argument with your partner (or someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship). Did it begin with one of you criticizing the other? Were you upset more with what your partner said or with how he or she said it?
Remember: the goal of communicating is to get understood. Criticize and the other person will shut down. Complain, in the right tone of voice at the right time, and, if they’re honest, the other person will be more receptive to listening to you.