How to Forgive: A Cognitive Behavioral Model for Forgiveness and Letting Go of Anger and Frustration

What is forgiveness?

Here’s what it is not. It is not for anyone else, only for you. It doesn’t imply reconciliation with the person who hurt you nor does it imply that you approve of their actions. It does not mean forgetting what happened.

What is forgiveness?

It is only for you, in order to help you feel better. As one well-known researcher said, “failing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Forgiveness means understanding what is causing your current distress. It is not what offended you or hurt you years ago or even a few minutes ago. The primary cause of your suffering is from your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in response to your thoughts about the event.

This is a subtle concept. Most of us believe the reason we are angry is because someone has done us wrong. And it’s true, that if we could erase the event, we would stop being angry. But none of us own a time machine so we can not erase the events.

What makes us suffer is each moment that we think about the offending person or event. And how we think about these events. It is as if you own a DVD collection of movies of different events in your life. If you were to choose to only watch the upsetting movies, your overall level of happiness would greatly diminish. Choosing to forgive is choosing the DVDs of your life that are positive and full of joy.

There is another component of how people think about grudges. We often have a magical belief that our anger at someone else causes them to suffer. We imagine them feeling guilty about their behavior and suffering even when we are not present. We think of ways to hurt them in return – the silent treatment, constant criticism, reminding them of their offenses. But the reality is that most people are very good at blocking out guilt and punishment. Whenever they’re not around us they tend to think about other things. And they develop good ways of avoiding our punishment. So really the one who suffers is the person who’s angry and who fails to forgive, not the offender. And if the person we take out our anger on is someone we are still in relationship with, it damages the relationship and makes it even less likely we will get what we want.

Another trigger for resentment and anger is holding onto what the anger and forgiveness researchers call “unenforceable rules”. These are what most cognitive behavioral therapists call “Shoulds”. They are the demands we make on the world and on people around us. You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t choose to do, and you can’t require people to give you things they choose not to.

For instance, you might want fidelity in your romantic partner. You certainly have every right to want that. But you can’t demand or enforce fidelity. If your partner chooses to go outside the relationship, you can’t really change it. The only options you have are how to react to this. You have choices to make about the relationship and about your future relationships.

The research on forgiveness is very interesting. It reduces blood pressure, stress, anger, depression and hurt while increasing optimism and hope. The primary researcher on forgiveness, Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, has even done forgiveness research with women in Northern Ireland whose husbands were murdered. Even with these extreme cases people have found the forgiveness model very helpful at easing the pain.

I’ve written about how to conquer anger using the S A P model. In this model you change your shoulds into preferences rather than demands, you place into perspective the events that have caused your anger, and you shift out of the blame model and depersonalize most events.

Forgiveness is about being happy. Living your life to its fullest is the best revenge you can take on someone who has offended you. Instead of focusing on the hurt or betrayal, focus your energy on getting what you want in your life in a different way other than through the person who has hurt or betrayed you. Take responsibility for your own happiness rather than placing it onto other people and then being disappointed when they don’t provide happiness.

Change your story. Too often we have what is called a grievance story. We tend to tell this story to many people. It always ends with us feeling stuck and angry. Change your story. Change the ending so that it ends with a powerful and strong choice to forgive.

 
So to summarize, here’s how to forgive:

1. Let yourself first feel the pain. Share the experience with a few close and trusted friends.

2. Recognize that your anger is a result of your choices about what thoughts to experience about an event. Decide to forgive so that you can move forward and feel better.

3. Recognize that you probably won’t be able to get rid of your hurt and anger by punishing the other person. All you will accomplish is to damage the relationship or make the other person suffer while you continue to suffer.

4. Recognize the role that your “unenforceable rules” or Shoulds plays in your continued hurt and anger. Change or eliminate these rules.

5. Figure out what you want in your life and how to succeed in achieving those goals even if the other person doesn’t provide the answers. Remember that happiness is the best revenge.

6. Use the S A P model to change your shoulds, eliminate exaggerated awfulizing thinking, and take away blame.

7. Rewrite your script. Tell the new story where you were hurt but recovered and forgave and moved forward. You are a hero!

 


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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

New Hope for Procrastination: Procrastinators are Trying to Repair Their Negative Moods by Avoiding Work According to the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has an intriguing article To Stop Procrastinating, Look to Science of Mood Repair. In the article, they discuss new research that suggests that many of the avoidant behaviors procrastinators use are actually attempts to repair low moods. Procrastinators often feel anxious or worried about the task they are attempting to accomplish, so that go to Facebook, the refrigerator, or to sleep to avoid those feelings. Learning new ways of dealing with negative feelings, and using some acceptance methods so that they can better tolerate the negative emotions are both helpful strategies for overcoming procrastination.

Highly recommended article, check it out! I’d write more, but I’m trying to get to work and stop avoiding by writing about avoidance!


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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

The Treatment of Tinnitus using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Tinnitus is condition where the person hears a ringing in their ears or other sounds when none of these sounds are present. It is a very common problem, especially as people age. According to studies, up to 20% of people over the age of 55 report symptoms.

What causes tinnitus? There can be many causes. The most common cause is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include medication side effects, as well as withdrawal from benzodiazepines. In many cases no apparent cause can be found.

For many, tinnitus is a relatively minor problem that they tend to ignore. Almost everyone has momentary tinnitus symptoms. But for other people tinnitus creates a tremendous amount of psychological distress. This includes anxiety and depression. The person fears the loss of their hearing, and tends to focus intensely on their symptoms. They begin to avoid situations where their symptoms are more noticeable. This typically means avoiding quiet locations where there is no sound to mask the tinnitus sounds. Or it may involve avoiding situations where there are loud noises such as movie theaters due to the fear of further hearing loss.

Similar to some forms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the person may begin to engage in frequent checking behavior. This means that they consciously check the presence and volume of the ringing in their ears. They may also frequently check their hearing.

The person also suffers from constant thinking about causes of the tinnitus. They often blame themselves for exposure to loud noises in earlier life. They think about the music concerts they attended where they didn’t wear earplugs, or even recreational listening to music. They have strong feelings of regret that can blend into depressive symptoms.

Unfortunately there are no terribly effective physical treatments for tinnitus. This leaves psychological treatment as the primary modality for successful reduction of distress.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) conceptualizes tinnitus much like it conceptualizes the experience of chronic pain. Chronic pain consists of two components. The first component is the physical sensations. The second component is the bother or suffering caused by these physical sensations.

Tinnitus can be conceptualized in the same way. The subjective experience of sounds in the ears is the physical sensation. The interpretations of these sensations lead to the emotional reactions; suffering and bother.

Although CBT cannot directly change the physical sensations of tinnitus, it can change the reactions to these sensations. And changing the reactions can actually lead to a subjective experience of diminishing symptoms.

What are the components of the CBT treatment for tinnitus?

1. Psychoeducation. The first step is to educate the client about how tinnitus works. The model used is that the loss of certain frequencies in the hearing range leads the brain to fill in those frequencies with sounds. It is very much like phantom limb pain, where an amputee may experience pain in the removed extremity.

The nature of hearing loss is explained, and psychoeducation regarding tinnitus and the risk of further hearing loss is discussed. If needed, results of hearing tests can be discussed relative to the actual severity of hearing loss. Although in some cases of tinnitus hearing loss is quite significant and may actually impair functioning, in many cases the hearing loss is relatively minor and does not impair functioning in any way.

2. Cognitive therapy. Here the therapist helps the patient to identify the negative thoughts that are leading to anxiety and/or depression. Typical thoughts for anxiety are: “I can’t live my life anymore with this condition. I will lose my hearing entirely. The sounds will drive me crazy. I’m out of control. If I go into _____ situation I will be troubled by these sounds so I must avoid it. I need to constantly check my hearing to make sure it’s not diminishing. I need to constantly check the tinnitus sounds to make sure they are not getting worse. They are getting worse! They will get worse and worse until they drive me crazy.”

Typical thoughts for depression are: “Life has no meaning if I have these sounds in my ears. I can’t enjoy my life anymore. It’s hopeless. There’s nothing I can do about it. Doctors can’t help me. It will get worse and worse and slowly drive me crazy. I won’t be able to function.”

Once these thoughts are identified then the skills of challenging them and changing them are taught to the client. The client learns how to alter these thoughts to more healthy thoughts. This produces a large reduction in anxiety and depression.

3. Attentional strategies. Because much of the subjective perceived loudness of tinnitus is based on attention, with higher levels of attention leading to higher levels of perceived loudness, developing different attentional strategies will help very much. In this part of the treatment mindfulness training and attentional training is used to help the client learn how to shift their attention away from the tinnitus sounds onto other sounds or other sensations. Often a paradoxical strategy is first used, where the patient is asked to intensely focus only on their tinnitus sensations. This teaches them that attention to tinnitus symptoms increases the perceived severity, and helps motivate them to learn attentional strategies.

Another aspect of attentional retraining is to stop the constant checking of symptoms and hearing. Helpful techniques include thought stopping where the client may snap a rubber band against their wrist each time they notice themselves checking.

4. Behavioral strategies. Tinnitus sufferers typically develop an elaborate pattern of avoidance in their lives. They avoid situations where they perceive tinnitus sounds more loudly. This can include avoiding many quiet situations, including being in quiet natural places such as the woods, or even avoiding going to quiet classical music concerts. They also tend to avoid situations where they might be exposed to any loud noise. This includes movie theaters, concerts, and even noisy office situations.

The behavioral component of CBT encourages an exposure-based treatment whereby the client begins to deliberately go back into all of the avoided situations. In situations where there is actual loud noise exposure at a level potentially damaging to hearing, they are encouraged to use protective earplugs.

The purpose of the behavioral component is to help the person return to their normal life.

5. Emotional strategies. Sometimes it is necessary to help the client go through a short period of grieving for their normal hearing. This allows them to move forward and to accept the fact that they have hearing loss and tinnitus. Acceptance is a key factor in recovering psychologically. This often also includes forgiving themselves for any prior excessive loudness exposures.

Changing the thoughts about the tinnitus symptoms also produces emotional change and a reduction in anxiety and depression.

In summary, cognitive behavioral therapy of tinnitus seeks to reduce the psychological suffering caused by the sensations of tinnitus. Cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and attentional strategies are taught to the client to empower them to no longer suffer psychologically from their tinnitus symptoms. Successful treatment not only reduces the psychological suffering, but because it also changes the attentional focus and lowers the checking of symptoms, people who complete CBT for tinnitus often report that their perceived symptoms have reduced significantly.

Tips:

1. Traditional psychotherapy is typically NOT helpful for tinnitus.

2. Find a practitioner, typically a psychologist, with extensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If they have experience treating tinnitus that is even better.

3. Give treatment a little time. You will have to work hard to learn new ways of thinking and reacting, and this won’t happen overnight. You should be doing therapy homework between sessions.

4. Medication treatment such as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication is typically not very helpful, and in the case of anti-anxiety medications can actually worsen tinnitus especially during withdrawal. First line treatment should be CBT.

5. Get help. Although the actual symptoms of tinnitus have no easy fix, the suffering can be treated and alleviated. Especially if you are experiencing depression symptoms, is is important to seek therapy with a CBT expert.


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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

The Two Selves: Implications for Time Management and Productivity

I’m on vacation. I’m sitting on the deck of a house overlooking Sunset Beach in Hawaii. It’s a windy day and the waves are blowing. Since I’ve been so lazy here I’ve been thinking about productivity. And the paradox of our two selves.

Here’s an interesting question. How is it that sometimes we tell ourselves “I’m going to do such and such task” and then don’t do it?

Who is the self who is giving the orders and who is the self who is not following them?

How is this even possible? Are we a collection of multiple personalities?

It’s such a common phenomenon that we take it for granted. We are never surprised when we say to ourselves “Gee I think I’ll skip that cake” and then we end up eating the cake. Or we say to ourselves “I think I’ll work on that project,” and then we surf the internet instead.

And yet there is something profoundly strange about all of these phenomena. It is as if there is one self who tells the other self what to do, and then that other self decides whether or not to do it. Who is driving this bus?!

How do these two selves work? There is a little bit of research about this. In his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow Daniel Kahneman discusses these concepts and notes that we always assume that our future self will be more disciplined and more self-controlled. However, this is almost never true. Our future self is merely an extension of our current self with all of its flaws. In fact, it is our belief in the future self being more sensible that allows our current self to overeat, smoke, drink, or procrastinate doing work.

We make the dangerous assumption that we can afford these bad behaviors in the present because our future self will clean up the problem. Unfortunately, our future self is just as much of a slacker and just as self-indulgent as our present self.

So how is it possible that we have these multiple selves and cannot control our own behavior? Who is driving the bus?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this issue lately and I have to admit I am somewhat puzzled by these phenomenon.

First of all, we need some terminology. Let’s call the telling-yourself-to-do-things self the Commanding Self. And let’s call the self that actually does things The Behaving Self.

Perhaps the real self is the Behaving Self, and the Commanding Self is the illusory self. In this formulation the reason that we don’t follow through on things is that we don’t actually really want to. In this formulation we would elegantly use Occam’s razor to reduce ourselves to one self; the behaving self who is actually the real self. We would become reductionist behaviorists, and to determine what people want we would observe what they actually do.

But then why do we spend so much time and effort having this other self who tells us what to do? And sometimes we actually do listen to the commanding self. What is different about those times when we listen and those times when we resist?

For instance, most of us have the experience of doing exercise, at least occasionally. And in order to do this we must listen to our Commanding Self.

Perhaps some of the current research on willpower can help us to understand the circumstances when the Commanding Self is listened to, and when it is not.

Current research on willpower suggests that it is a precious and limited commodity. It diminishes rapidly when used, and perhaps has about a 15 to 30 minutes half-life before it is exhausted. Other research suggests it is powered by our glucose metabolism so ironically the best way to resist overeating is to have a little bit of a sugary drink to restore willpower. The other factors that diminish willpower include being tired, hungry, probably emotional, and any other state that diminished our being. The 12-Step people were on to something with their model of hungry, angry, lonely, and tired (HALT) which captures this concept perfectly.

So perhaps another way of conceptualizing this strange dichotomy of selves is that the Commanding Self and the Behaving Self have relatively different strengths depending on our state of being both physically and emotionally.

The Commanding Self has more relatively more strength when we are well-rested, emotionally balanced, and well fed. The Behaving Self takes over when we’re tired, emotionally upset, or hungry.

Perhaps we should label the Behaving Self the Misbehaving Self! After all, most of the time the Behaving Self actually does misbehave. And perhaps we should label the Commanding Self as the Demanding Self.

There are many other self splits that we can look at. For instance, there clearly is a split between our short-term self and our long-term self. Many of the discrepancies in our behavior are a result of this particular split.

For instance, dieting. The short-term self wants immediate food gratification regardless of the long-term consequences on our weight or health. The short-term self wants to spend money in contradiction to the long-term self’s goal of spending less money and saving more.

So how can we integrate these multiple selves? Is it possible to create cooperation between our Commanding Self and our Behaving Self?

Can we possibly learn to show up for ourselves and actually follow through on what we say we are going to do?

Here’s an interesting exercise. What if you means-tested each command by asking yourself “How likely is it that I will do this?” And only issuing the commands that your Behaving Self agreed with?

So if you sit down at your computer and say “I’m going to do some writing,” you would ask yourself, “Do I really want to do some writing, and will I actually follow through and do it?” If the answer was not a resounding yes, then you would not issue the command.

It would be a very interesting experiment to spend an entire day doing this. One could also experiment with lowering the expectations of the Commanding Self. For instance, rather than saying I’m going to lift weights for 30 minutes, I would say I will lift weights for 5 minutes and then decide if I feel like doing more. That way I have at least lived up to my own expectations.

Same with eating. Rather than say I’m only going to eat one chip , I would instead say I’m going to eat the entire bag. Then if I leave a little bit I have actually outperformed my expectations.

In a sense what I’m suggesting here is that we have an honest dialogue with ourselves. As we write down our to-do list each morning, we should pretend that we are a boss or a manager asking an employee if they are willing and able to do each task. “Are you willing to sit down today and write for an hour?” “I don’t really know. I’m feeling sort of tired and unmotivated today. I guess I can commit to writing for 30 minutes, but I am not sure about an hour.” “Okay, why don’t you write for 30 minutes?”

And with each item on the to-do list we would have this honest discussion. We might also have a meta-discussion about the entire to-do list. For instance, “I notice that there are a large number of items on this to-do list and you only have a few hours free today. Is it realistic to really accomplish all of these items or should you be moving several to another day?”

“Yes, I see what you mean. I probably can’t achieve all of these items. I guess I have to pick one or two items and focus on those.”

“Which items would you like to select? Which are your highest priorities?”

I recently did this experiment for several days and discovered that unless my ratings of wanting to do something were in the 80 to 100 range (hundred point scale), I didn’t usually do the task. This was very consistent. I also noticed that sometimes the rating of wanting to do something didn’t get up to this critical range until the task became urgent, which of course explains procrastination.

Using the Technique of Paradoxical Agenda Setting

The technique of paradoxical agenda setting involves taking a devil’s advocate approach. Rather than trying to motivate yourself to do things by telling yourself all the good reasons why you should do those tasks, you instead ask yourself about all the reasons not to do the task?

By focusing on all the reasons not to do something you can honestly assess your motivation and even address some of these resistances more honestly. Rather than just saying to yourself “Just do it!”, you look at your resistance and troubleshoot how to eliminate it.

Exercises

Exercise: Write down all the commands you give yourself for an entire day. That includes to do list items that you set yourself to do, informal commands such as “I won’t eat the entire pie,” as well as any agreements you make with other people to accomplish tasks.

Write down the tasks and the commands as you issue them, not later. Otherwise you won’t remember them. At the end of the day take an inventory. Determine how many of the commands you actually accomplished. You probably want to calculate a percentage accomplished.

Take a look at this percentage. If it is over 80 percent then your two selves are very well integrated and you probably should stop reading this article right now. If it’s between 50 and 80 percent you are doing better than most people but still have plenty of room for improvement. If it’s between 30 and 50 percent then you are struggling with a split between your Commanding Self and your Behaving Self. In fact, you might just want to call it your Misehaving Self. And if you are below 30 percent then you are probably suffering many consequences from your inability to integrate your multiple selves.

Exercise: Learning how to lower your own expectations. Write down a goal for today. Now cut it in half. Now cut it in half again. That’s the new goal. We always bite off more than we can chew.

Exercise: Ownership. Write down a goal for today. Ask yourself is this is really your goal or someone else’s goal? Is it something that you want to do or is it something that you think you should do based on someone else’s opinion.?

Exercise: Under-promise and over-deliver. For today, practice making very small promises to yourself and overachieving on each promise. You want to be authentic and sincere in these small goals. Don’t pretend that they are actually larger goals.

Exercise: Gradually increasing goals. If your exercise goal is to exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes, but you only exercise once a week, then you must lower your goal first to one time a week. See if you can achieve that goal several weeks in a row. If you can, then you get to increase the goal to perhaps two times a week of exercising. Once you’ve achieved that goal you get to increase the goal to three times. But each time and each week you must reach that new goal otherwise you must go back to the previous week’s goal.

That means if you set a goal of exercising three times but you fail to meet that goal then you must roll back the goal to two times and achieve that goal that for at least two weeks in a row. This will train you to make reasonable and achievable goals and to follow through on those goals.
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“Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die” : The Paradox of Goal Versus Time Management.

One of the ways to explain the disparity between our multiple selves is the trade-off principal embodied by the heaven quote.

We all have many goals, but in order to achieve goals we need time. Goals are infinite, and we can add an unlimited amount of them to our to-do list. But time is the ultimate finite quantity. We can manufacture as many goals as we choose, but we can’t produce a single extra minute of time.

Hence lies one very simple explanation for the two selves paradox. The Commanding Self produces a list of goals or tasks to achieve. The other self, which we will call the Behaving Self, must perform the task of accomplishing these goals within limited time, and must balance the time to achieve one goal versus another goal. But because the Commanding Self doesn’t really consider time in it’s estimations, the Behaving Self is almost certain to fail. The problem is that the Commanding Self does not understand the trade-off principle. The Commanding assumes that time is infinite. Which of course is patently untrue.

So how to fix this paradox? Perhaps the Commanding Self should be required to first estimate how much time each task or goal will take. And then double or triple this time estimate. But that won’t be enough. Instead of a to-do list, perhaps the Commanding Self should only use a calendar and time schedule. If the Commanding Self wants to straighten up the house , then it should be required to put it on the time schedule. And if it doesn’t fit on a time schedule , then don’t put it on.

This gives power back to the Behaving Self. And it is the Behaving Self that actually performs tasks. So we need to take the power away from the Commanding Self, and give it back to the Behaving Self. This should resolve many of the paradoxes between the two selves.

In a sense, what I am suggesting here is for all of us to get rid of our to-do lists, and replace them with time schedules and calendars. If a task doesn’t fit in our schedule, then it doesn’t become an action item. Of course the challenge of this would be that we tend to greatly underestimate the time it takes to accomplish each task, so we would have to either leave extra time, or split tasks into numerous sessions of work spread out over several days.

I am reminded of Neil Fiore’s book The Now Habit. He talks about the Un-Schedule. What he suggests is that people put on their Un-Schedule all of the things they have to do every day. This includes basic tasks of daily life such as showering, eating, commuting, all meetings, etc. What is left is the actual time you have to accomplish tasks. And for most people this is a very small amount of time. He then suggests that you fill in half hour blocks of work, after you accomplish that 30 minutes of work.

It is very sobering to do this. Most people realize that at best they have an hour or two per day to actually accomplish new work. Many jobs include multiple meetings which are required, leaving relatively little time in the workday to actually accomplish anything. When I did this I realized that after I included all of my basic tasks of daily life, exercise, returning phone calls, processing emails, and seeing clients, most days I only had an hour or two to accomplish anything else. And this hour or two could easily be used up doing a few tasks. When I realized how little time I really had during the work week, I lowered my goals and was happy accomplishing one or two significant tasks each day.

So these are some rambling thoughts from the beach about the paradoxes which make up our lives. Now my Behaving Self is saying time to go for a swim!


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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

12 Techniques for Giving Criticism and Feedback so that People Can Hear It without Getting Defensive

I was recently asked a very interesting question by one of my clients. He asked, “What percentage of people can listen to feedback and criticism without getting defensive?” I responded, not really in jest, “Only the people that have taken my non-defensiveness training!”

The reality is that most people instantly get defensive when criticized or even given mildly negative feedback. Regular readers will recall that I’ve written extensively about how to respond non-defensively: see “Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill.”

But I also wanted to write about the other side of the equation – some techniques for giving feedback and criticism that lower the probability of the other person feeling hurt or getting defensive.

Here are 12 great concepts in giving feedback and criticism.

1. Focus on behavior and not on the person. Never label the person with a pejorative label. Avoid words like “inconsiderate”, “jerk”, “slob”, “lazy”, and all other negative label words especially four letter words.

2. Be specific and concrete when you focus on behavior. Use the journalistic technique of who, what, when, where, and if appropriate, why when you describe a behavior. For instance, consider this feedback from a wife to her husband: “An hour ago, when we were talking to Herb and Lucille, in their garden, you told them about my getting fired from my job. This upset me because I have a lot of shame right now about getting fired.” Notice that this feedback includes all of the specific descriptors.

3. Whenever possible, tell the person what you want instead of what you don’t want. So instead of criticizing your partner for sitting on the couch while you clean the kitchen, instead ask them to help you clean the kitchen. If there is a specific behavior that you would like the person to stop, it’s okay to ask them to stop but usually better to also specify something else that you would prefer. Example: “I’d really like it if you wouldn’t scream at the children. Could you instead talk firmly to them? I’d really appreciate that.”

4. Recognize what people can change and cannot change, and how difficult a specific behavior will be for them to change. This is a difficult lesson, and one that most of us resist. But it’s terribly important.

I’m reminded of the famous parable of the frog and the scorpion. In the story, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I’ll drown, and I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the sting, knows he is dying, and has just enough time to gasp “Why did you sting me, now we both will die?” Replies the scorpion: “Because I am a scorpion, it’s my nature…”

Another similar saying is, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it will frustrate you and annoy the pig.”

Some things people can change and others are more linked to their basic character and nature, and are extremely difficult if not impossible to change. There is also the issue of what people are willing to invest energy in changing.

Here are some criteria for determining whether a particular criticism even make sense.

  • Has the person had a specific behavior for most of their life? If so, what makes you think it will suddenly change?
  • Is the person genuinely interested in making the desired change? Is it within their value system to change? People can change the things that they strongly wish to change, but if they’re only changing because you asked them to, they will most likely fail.
  • How much energy would it take for the person to change the behavior? Something that takes very little energy is more likely to happen than a request which will take herculean amounts of energy.
  • Is changing this particular behavior the most important thing for you or might there be a different behavior that would yield more satisfaction for you?
  • Does the person have shame attached to the behavior you are criticizing? If so, you should carefully consider whether the criticism is worth the pain you will most likely cause.

The idea here is to avoid asking the scorpion not to sting. If someone’s been messy and disorganized for their whole life, it’s probably not reasonable to ask them to become neat and organized. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t make any requests, but a more reasonable request might be to ask the messy person to keep their mess within a specific room or rooms, and then close the door.

Always evaluate if it’s even worth giving criticism. Remember, criticism is fairly toxic to relationships. Women sometimes criticize men in the hopes that the men will change. Nobody really changes. If you feel a need to criticize your partner constantly than the problem is probably with you and your lack of tolerance and acceptance. Or maybe you need to re-evaluate whether the relationship makes sense to continue.

5. Avoid giving feedback or criticism when you are particularly angry. Very few of us have the skills to give gentle and reasonable criticism when we are really frustrated and angry. If you give criticism when you are pissed off, you will blow it. You won’t be able to follow any of the rules in this article. Your primary goal will be to hurt the other person, which never works out well.

6. Pick your time and place carefully. This should include assessing your partner’s state of mind. If they are hungry, angry, stressed out, or tired then defer your criticism for later. It will never go well if you’re not attentive to time and place and state of mind. And remember, sometimes the right time and place is never and nowhere.

7. Ask for change, don’t demand change. Most of us get really stubborn when someone demands that we change. Besides, who made you the boss?

8. Avoid spending any significant time discussing the past. Mistakes made in the past are over and done with unless you own a time machine. Giving multiple examples of past mistakes will only overwhelm the person and make them defensive. Give only one example at most. Better yet, use an example from the current time. Assume your partner isn’t stupid and can understand the specific behavior you’re asking them to change.

9. Once you’ve asked for a change don’t micromanage that change. Let the person figure out how to do it, and don’t stand over them or constantly monitor them.

10. Be very specific about your feedback and the desired outcome. Your requested outcome should be so clear to the other person that anyone would be able to determine whether the outcome had occurred or not. Use the journalistic model of who, what, when, where, and why. Use accurate language, and avoid extremes of “never” or “always”. Don’t ask your partner to never again throw their clothing on the floor. Instead, specify that you would like it to happen less frequently.

11. Use a soft start up. Give a compliment first and be gentle in the feedback you give. Point out (if true) how the criticized behavior is a departure from the person’s usual terrific behavior. This is a way of giving a compliment while giving criticism. Example: “You are usually so helpful in the kitchen. But last night you left all of the dirty dishes. I’d really appreciate if you’d clean them up this morning.”

12. Never threaten your partner or deliver ultimatums. Even if you are at the end of your rope never threaten the termination of the relationship. When people hear an ultimatum they shut off. Also it triggers resistance since none of us like to be blackmailed into action.

Also, you can only make an ultimatum once. If you make it more than once you lose all credibility. So just avoid them entirely. (Notice this applies to parenting children as well.)

So there you have 12 great techniques for giving feedback and criticism in a healthy way. Remember that it’s essential to balance criticism with lots and lots of compliments and showing appreciation. Good relationships typically have at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback. If your relationship has a lower ratio than this then it’s time to change. Catch your partner doing things that you like and appreciate, and let them know in a warm and genuine way. This is perhaps the most important secret of giving criticism – let it be in the context of lots of praise.

Now I have to go tell my sweetie that she is awesome!


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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.