Criticism and Connection

One of the easiest ways to connect with someone is by criticizing someone else. One of my earliest memories of friendship was hearing criticism from a kid in the neighborhood about another weird kid in the neighborhood who came from a Jehovah Witness family. Being a scrawny, short, home-schooled kid myself with not that many friends, I joined in, “YEAH, he IS such a weirdo.” I was desperate to have a friend and if I made fun of someone else, I was no longer the odd man out…right? And maybe I’d finally have a friend (in the person who originally criticized the other weird kid).

I did end up having a friend, and then a few more, and the lesson stuck. If I criticize someone else for being the outsider, then I am no longer the outsider, right?

As I have started dissecting my behaviors on criticism — both as a child and today, the only motivation is that criticism creates the perception of human connection. In every relationship, there is inevitability something that frustrates both individuals. The propensity to then share what those things are, not with the individual but with others is a strange aspect of human nature. We trade the social capital of one relationship for perceived social capital of another.

We justify the behavior in numerous ways — we are trying to help the person in question, and just need advice on how to help them or we are trying to make a new friend.

“Contrary to lay perceptions…most negative gossip is not intended to hurt the target, but to please the gossiper and receiver.” – Elena Martinescu.

Guilty. I didn’t want to hurt Jason – the nice boy who lived three houses down and whose family just happened to be Jehovah Witnesses – I just wanted a friend.

As I think about others doing the same thing, their act of criticism has the opposite impact on me. I remember thinking in that moment…if he thinks Jason is weird, I wonder what he says about me? At least Jason is good at sports and goes to a regular school! When you hear someone else devalue, belittle, or blame others in an attempt to connect, you think – if they are doing this to others, could they be doing it to me too?

“Criticizing others is a dangerous thing, not so much because you may make mistakes about them, but because you may be revealing the truth about yourself.” — Harold Medina

We find two incongruous behaviors in play. First, we perceive that we connect more quickly with others when we criticize someone else and second, we don’t trust critics because it reveals that you are not immune to their criticism–you just aren’t hearing it about you right now.

How do we break the cycle of criticism and work to create real connection? I’ll admit that I am not particularly good at these, but I’m working on it. And, I’m constantly looking to improve, so please give me feedback if you hear me responding in a way that is misaligned with any of the below:

  1. Start with self
    1. I have noticed that I am far less critical when I’m on vacation or after a run. When I am emotionally balanced and free of stress, I am less negative about myself and others. Increase my levels of stress, prevent me from exercising for a week and suddenly, everything and everyone around me is a problem. Investing in self by mediating, practicing the attitude of thankfulness, and being conscious to remove myself from overtly negative situations helps to create a criticism free environment.
    2. Criticism (most of the time) starts with you statements. “You did this” or “you made me feel that”. It is an attack on who the other person is and assigns feelings/behaviors/identify to that individual rather than looking inward to assess your role in your own feelings. Start by asking yourself “what do I really want?” By creating focus on the end game – for example, I want a new friend or I want to connect with this person more deeply – once you do, you realize how you get there is never by being negative or critical.
  2. Adapt your communication strategies – start by listening. Most of us are so eager to share how we feel and think that we miss opportunities to understand the people around us. Venture outside of the superficial – I recently met someone who asked me what I was most proud of instead of where I worked. We had an amazing conversation and connection just because we skipped all the superficial BS that governs how we talk today.
  3. Create an environment of safety – people are less likely to display negativity and more likely to be open to connecting when they are in environments in which they experience psychological safety. We can create these environments by being honest, eliminating criticism of others and displaying consistently in our actions, words and behaviors.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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