Do you know the difference between a complaint and a criticism?
I hope so, because the difference is extremely important!
A complaint is about specific issues or behaviors, while a criticism is an assault on a person's character.
A complaint lets someone know there is a problem (and there are solutions to problems!). Criticizing someone leaves a person feeling rejected, attacked and alone and doesn't lead to change.
One example that I use to illustrate the difference concerns being late.
So for some reason Joe is usually late. He's the guy that's been told he will be late to his own funeral. You've met a Joe or two in your life, right? And his wife Beth is once again disappointed when Joe is 20 minutes late to pick her up. This delay starts a chain of events that disrupts the rest of their day. So Beth tells Joe, "You are always late. You never think of what that does to me or the kids. You just don't care about us. You are so selfish!"
Joe is blown away! He does think about his wife and kids all the time and greatly cares for them. He loves them. But when he hears his wife speak to him this way, he gets defensive and his response might be, "What are you talking about? It's only 20 minutes, it's not a big deal. You always over-react. You are such a nag. Get over yourself."
Now Beth feels unheard, disrespected and rejected. Did either of these statements help move this couple toward a more workable situation around being on time? No. They both attacked each other on a personal level and neither understands why the other is attacking them. This kind of critical communication tears down connectedness in the relationship.
So what could they have said and done differently? First, Beth needed to talk about her own feelings, how the situation of him being late is affecting her and she needed to use a soft start-up. The research shows that 96% of the time how we begin a conversation is the same way that the conversation will end. So we want to be gentle when we speak to each other.
Beth could have said, "Joe, I am really looking forward to all of our plans for today. I'm afraid this late start has set us behind. We may have to skip taking the children to the park and they were really looking forward to that. I'm disappointed because I was looking forward to that too. Is there something I can do next time to help you get ready?"
Now Beth has explained that she is disappointed and that the children may be disappointed too due to Joe's actions of being late. She has not attacked his character. She used a soft start-up and only spoke about her feelings. Now Joe has an opportunity to respond without feeling threatened.
Joe might say, "I am so sorry babe. I really wanted to go to the park too and I guess I just didn't budget my time well this morning. Next time I will ask for any help I might need."
Now this couple can go about their day feeling heard and respected rather than on guard for another attack. They can't do anything now about being late, but they can choose to make the rest of their day, a good day.
Remember that a complaint is nothing more than feedback. Feedback given via a complaint rather than a criticism is all good stuff! Feedback allows us to make choices to change behavior and help our relationships grow and flourish.
When a woman or man cannot accept feedback and really listen to their spouse, then that relationship is on a downward trajectory.
So choose to listen. Choose to understand that we ALL make mistakes, we ALL need to grow and we ALL can benefit from loved ones giving us feedback in the form of a complaint.
As John Gottman says, "Behind every complaint is a deep and personal longing."
1. Use a soft-start-up
2. Speak about your own feelings
3. Talk about the behavior and not about the person
4. Take responsibility for your actions
5. Listen to each other to hear the longing behind the complaint
I love how the secular research supports biblical principles:
Proverbs 14:29 ESV
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
Proverbs 15:1 KJV
A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.
Proverbs 12:1-28 NKJV
Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid. (And haven't we all been here? I have!)
Proverbs 18:2 NKJV
A fool has no delight in understanding, But in expressing his own heart.
Proverbs 17:27 NKJV
He who has knowledge spares his words, And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit.
Proverbs 3:13 NKJV
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, And the man who gains understanding.