Dealing with Conflict Over Typical Home Neatness/Cleanliness Issues: The Houzz Interview and Some Other Thoughts

I was recently interviewed for the site Houzz, which is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. In an article, A Therapist’s Guide to Dealing With Conflict at HomeI was interviewed by Mitchell Parker, a writer for Houzz.

He asked me to comment on that age-old problem when people live together of neatness/sloppiness and cleanliness/messiness. How can people get along?

I suggest you read his article which really quite nicely captures my thinking about these issues. In a nutshell, it’s all about communication. It’s not the dirty dishes that create conflict, it’s the failure to communicate about the dirty dishes in ways that resolve the problem.

Most importantly, I discussed the fallacy of the moral high ground in neatness and cleanliness. I admit I might be a bit biased on this issue, living closer to the moral low ground, but the argument is that there is no moral high ground in terms of these issues. Because our culture often values neatness and cleanliness, in arguments the neat person always takes the moral high ground, “I am the one who’s right therefore you should change.” Needless to say this doesn’t usually result in any positive progress on the issue.

I prefer to think of these issues as aesthetic preferences. Just as one person might prefer abstract art on the wall, while another person might prefer realistic paintings, messiness versus neatness is really an aesthetic preference. Handling it this way usually leads to better outcomes in conflicts over these issues. If two people come at the neat/messy conflict from a position of having differing preferences as opposed to “shoulds”, it is more likely that they can come to some sort of negotiated compromise which will be workable.

And treating these differences as preferences has another advantage as well. It usually leads to much more respectful communication about these issues. If a neat person recognizes that their need for neatness is simply a preference, they will not demonize their partner who is messy, calling them a “slob” or a “pig”. In a similar way, if the messy person recognizes that their disorder is a preference, they won’t label their partner as obsessive or a “neat freak.” This makes it much easier to discuss the differences.

The key issue is to apply a sort of flowchart to these issues. The flowchart looks like this:

1.Identify what each of you wants in terms of your home environment. Recognize that these are aesthetic preferences, and not moral shoulds.

2.Identify the ideal state that you would prefer, and also identify a less than ideal but okay state. It’s the latter that you will most likely end up with.

3. Discuss the differences, and see if there is a workable compromise. Sometimes the compromise will not be a simple meeting in the middle, but will instead involve a trade-off. For instance, if one person prefers an impeccably clean house, but the other person is not willing to spend the time and effort to do this, the couple could agree that they will hire someone to come in weekly to clean the house. Or the neater person might clean the house, but the other person agrees to do other life maintenance tasks such as paying the bills, parenting tasks, gardening tasks, or house maintenance tasks. Things don’t have to be perfectly split down the middle, it’s just important that they feel fair.

4. In looking at these differences it’s also useful to see what people are able to do, and what they are willing to do. Willingness and being able to do something are completely different things. As hard as it is to believe, (for the neat person), many messy people actually do not have the ability to be ordered and neat. This seems hard to believe. After all, can’t anybody fold their clothing and put it away? Can’t anybody put a dish in the dishwasher? And of course the answer is yes, technically, but in practice, especially over time, many people lack the skills.

Think of it this way. Technically anybody should be able to exercise every single day of their life and also eat healthy. We all know how to eat healthy and how to exercise. But how many people actually succeed on a daily basis? Very few. We are willing but not very able.

5. Which brings me to my next issue that of willingness. Even if we are technically able to do something, we might not always be willing to spend the time and energy doing it. Time and energy are a zero-sum game. We only have 16 hours of conscious time each day, and actually most of us have far fewer free hours, with work, parenting, relaxation, and other priorities.

Cleaning and organizing takes time and energy, and while some people feel the time and energy is well rewarded others do not. In my interview, I suggested a market-based way of assessing willingness. Although I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that if one partner wants the other to do something they offer to pay them. If I want my partner to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, what am I willing to pay on a daily basis? And what price would they require to be willing to do this?

This is more of a mental exercise than an actual exchange of dollars. But I know for myself if my partner asked me what it would be worth for me to keep every surface in my home perfectly cleared every single day, I would set the price very high, something like $500 a day. That is because it would take a lot of conscious work in order to keep every surface clear. And it would take perhaps an hour or two every day. My price represents my perceived value for the change.

And then my partner could decide if that was worth it. After all, we make these kinds of evaluations all the time. If our not so new car gets scratched in a parking lot, most of us choose not to spend a lot of money to have it fixed. We accept the scratches and live with them.

6. What it comes down to is very simple. If you want your partner to change some house related behavior, first try to assess their ability and willingness to do so. If they are able and willing then you can try to get them to change their behavior. This will require ongoing discussions and work, and will not be easy.

Or you can outsource the problem. If you don’t like cleaning toilets and you can’t get your partner to do that, pay someone to clean your toilets. Most of us do this in other realms without any issues. We pay car mechanics to fix our cars, we pay gardeners to cut down our trees, and we often pay tutors to help our kids learn.

Finally, you can accept the difference. Acceptance is probably the most powerful tool in dealing with these conflicts. Acceptance frees you to stop wasting energy being angry or trying to change your partner. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

I started this post thinking I would just point to the interview that I did on house, but discovered that I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts that I discussed during that interview.

Good luck to all of you, these can be difficult issues, and the key thing is to remember to be gentle, loving, and respectful in your communications about these differences. Nobody gets divorced over dishes in the sink, they get divorced because of the way they interact around dishes in the sink.

I’m off to straighten up, or maybe not?

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, 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.

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. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, 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. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, 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.

Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill

“Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Jack blamed Jill,
Jill blamed Jack,
And each vowed they would
Never come back.”

What is the secret of good couples communication? What one simple skill tremendously improves the ability of couples to discuss difficult subjects?

It is the skill of non-defensive responding. What do I mean by this?

Let me give you an example. Imagine a hypothetical couple Jack and Jill. Jack comes home from work and is tired and hungry. Jill got home from her job one hour before. She’s sitting on the couch reading the paper.

Jack says, “I can’t believe you haven’t started dinner. I’m really hungry! You’re just sitting there relaxing, while I’m starving!”

(If you were Jill, how would you react?)

A typical response that Jill might make would be something like, “You’ve got hands, why don’t you make dinner! Why do you expect me to be your slave!?”

At which point it is likely a good fight would ensue.

The non-defensive response would be something like, “It sounds like you’re really hungry and kind of annoyed that I haven’t started dinner yet. You’re absolutely right, I was really stressed out when I got home from work and I decided to relax for a while rather than start dinner. I can see how you would feel frustrated getting home from work tired and hungry and seeing me just sitting here. Why don’t you sit down and relax and I’ll get us some quick snacks, and then get dinner started.”

Notice the difference. In the first example Jill counterattacks. Jack will counterattack in return and quickly things will escalate into a full fight.

In the non-defensive example Jill acknowledges Jack’s feelings. Then she finds some truth in his statement. Next she validates his feelings. And finally, she proposes a solution.

This is an incredibly powerful skill for reducing conflict and improving communication between people. In this article I will give you some basic theoretical rationale for why non-defensive responding works so well, and then teach you — step-by-step — how respond non-defensively.

First the theory. Human ego is a delicate thing. We spend a lot of our energy defending our sense of self against attacks or criticisms. The problem with this model is that it’s impossible to defend completely against all attacks or criticisms. This is because most of us are very far from perfect — we are quite flawed — and we know it.

The problem is that we don’t accept it. We have this all or nothing model of ourselves which says either we are perfect or we are awful. So when any criticism comes along, it challenges our model of being perfect and we slip into the painful feelings of complete inadequacy.

We don’t like feeling inadequate, so we try to deny or counterattack any criticism. There are so many types of defensive responding that it’s difficult to catalog all of them. But some of the major types of defensive responding are described below. (These are based on John Gottman’s work on communication.)

Major Kinds of Defensiveness

1. Denying responsibility. This involves denying that you’re at fault no matter what your partner accuses you of. If your wife says you hurt her feelings by saying something insensitive, you reply that you didn’t do anything wrong.

2. Making excuses. This is when you acknowledge the mistake, but create a reason for why circumstances outside your control forced you to make the mistake. Classic examples of this are, “traffic made me late,” or “I just forgot to pick up the milk.”

3. Disagreeing with negative mind reading. This is when you disagree with your partner’s interpretation of your internal state or emotion.

Jack: You seemed very frustrated with me tonight.
Jill: That’s not true, I was just tense being at a work party.

4. Cross complaining. This defensive response involves meeting your partner’s complaint or criticism with an immediate complaint of your own. An example would be:

Jill: you never take me out anymore.
Jack: and you never cook me dinner anymore!

5. Rubber man/rubber woman. This is based on the old saying, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” In this form of defensiveness, you immediately counterattack with a similar criticism.

Jack: You were very mean to me at the party tonight.
Jill: Well you were mean to me yesterday when we visited your mother’s house.

6. Yes-Butting.  This is where you start off agreeing, but then end up negating the agreement.

Jack: You said you would put away your work papers off the dining room      table.
Jill: Yes I did, but I was waiting for you to clear off your books first.

7. Repeating yourself. This involves repeating the criticism again and again without listening to your partner.

8. Whining. This involves the sound of your voice and the stressing of one syllable at the end of this sentence. For instance, “You always ignore me at parties.”

9. Body language. Typical body language signs of defensiveness are crossing your arms across her chest, shifting side to side, and a false smile.

Ultimately the goal of all defensiveness is to preserve the self. This is a commendable but hopeless goal, since defensiveness triggers elevated levels of criticism from the other person. As Gottman has so elegantly described, the more you defend yourself, the harsher the criticism you receive. That’s because when someone criticizes you they want you to acknowledge the validity of their feelings and thoughts. When you respond defensively you are invalidating them, so they escalate the criticism. If you can’t hear them the first time, they say it louder.

This of course leads you to become even more defensive because the criticism is now much harsher. And the two of you are off to the races! The fight escalates, gets personal, and both of you end up feeling damaged.

So what is the solution? How do we get out of this vicious cycle of defensiveness and criticism?

The answer is a radical shift in the way we think about ourselves. Radical non-defensiveness is the answer.

What is radical non-defensiveness? First it requires a shift in our core beliefs about ourselves. Remember that most of us have an all-or-nothing model of our self. We believe, “I must be perfect otherwise I am crap. If anyone points out my imperfections, they are basically saying that I am crap, and I won’t listen and I will counterattack.”

Radical non-defensiveness means that we shift our core belief about ourself to, “I am a flawed human being. I make many mistakes. I can improve on almost anything I do. But even with my flaws I am a worthwhile and valuable person.”

With this radically changed belief about the self, criticism changes as well. Instead of criticism meaning that we are worthless human being, it simply acknowledges the reality of being flawed, and helps us to improve.

If you think about it for a moment, you might realize that radical non-defensiveness is the antidote to perfectionism. Perfectionism beliefs cause much human suffering. When we feel that we need to be perfect in order to be worthwhile we are living in a glass house. The smallest pebble can crack our armor. And that pebble can be any criticism.

The radical non-defensive model is completely the opposite of perfectionism. I don’t need to be perfect to be good and worthwhile. I can shoot for an 85 rather than 100. If I make a mistake, I can acknowledge it and realize that everybody makes mistakes.

Let’s go over — step-by-step — how to respond non-defensively. (Some of this is based on some of David Burns’s work on communication.)

First let’s create another example of criticism. Back to Jack and Jill. They have finished dinner, and Jack retires to his laptop computer, where he spends the next several hours deep in Internet surfing. Jill tries to talk to him about something that happened at work, but he ignores her. Finally, she explodes, “You never listen to me!  You are always surfing on your stupid computer! You don’t care about me, and you’d rather watch YouTube videos than listen to my problems. You are an uncaring husband!”

Whew! That’s pretty intense criticism isn’t it? How can Jack respond non-defensively to this?

Let me take you through it step by step.

Step One: Paraphrase back to the person the thoughts and feelings they are expressing to you.

Jack says, “It sounds like you’re really frustrated and angry with me right now, because I was on the computer rather than focusing on you.”

Step Two: Find SOME truth in what they are saying. In this step what you try to do is select whatever reality-based truth there is, and ignore hostile names or labels. You focus on the behavior that you’ve committed rather than the nasty labels.

Jack says, “You are absolutely right. I have been spending way too much time on my computer and not enough time connecting with you.”

Step Three: Validate the emotion paraphrased in Step One, and connect it to the behavior in Step Two. This lets the person know that many people, including you, might feel the same emotion in the same situation.

Jack says, “I can see why you might feel frustrated. If I wanted to talk more with you and you were reading all the time I’d probably feel the same way. It makes perfect sense.”

Step Four: Offer possible solutions. Here there are several options. One option is a genuine apology. This is very powerful. Another option is to suggest discussing the problem in order to find solutions. This option is best when the criticism encompasses a complex problem that can’t easily be resolved. Another option is to simply fix the problem right then and there.

Jack closes his computer and says, “I’m really sorry. I do want to hear what happened at work, why don’t we sit together on the couch and talk about it.”

Step Five: Thank the other person for bringing the problem to your attention. This is probably the most alien step of all for most people. How can you thank someone for criticizing you? If you recall in the radical non-defensiveness model, you acknowledge that you can always improve, and that criticism is often what helps you to improve. So thanking the person for criticizing you is really saying thank you for caring enough about me to help me improve.

Jack says, “Thanks Jill for telling me how you feel. That allows me to be more conscious of being a better husband. Thanks again.”

One typical objection to non-defensive responding is “Won’t the the other person criticize me more if I don’t defend myself?” The truth is actually the opposite. The more you defend yourself the more criticism you receive, and the harsher the criticism becomes. Most criticism is designed to create change or to be listened to, and defensive responding achieves neither.

Another objection is, “What if the criticism is completely unfounded or unjust? How can I respond non-defensively in that case?”

Criticism is rarely completely unfounded. There is almost always SOME truth in most criticism. Even if it just factual truth, you can agree with it. Example:
Jill: You were flirting with that woman Nancy at the party. You’d like to sleep with her.
Jack: You are absolutely right, I was flirting a little. I can see how that would upset you. I don’t want to sleep with her though. What can we do at the next party so I don’t upset you?

Try using this skill at home, at work, with friends, and with family. You will be surprised at how effective it is. I’ve summarized the steps below.

Now I’ve got to go apologize to my sweetie for spending so much time writing this….

Non-Defensive Responding Step by Step
1. Empathy: respond with empathic reflection, “It sounds like you are feeling quite angry at me for forgetting your birthday.”  (Use tone matching and empathic body language). Reflect both content and feeling.

2. Find some truth in the statement, and strongly agree. “You are absolutely right. I totally forgot your birthday! What a dope I am!”

3. Validate the emotions reflected in step 1. “I can see why you are angry. I’d be angry in your situation too!”

4. Offer possible solutions, compromise, problem solving, or an apology.
“I blew it, I’m very sorry, and I’d like to make it up to you by taking you away next weekend. How does that sound?”

5. Show appreciation for the person giving you the feedback. “Thanks for letting me know how you feel. Now I can make a point of not forgetting your birthday.”

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, 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.