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THE INC. LIFE

Complain, Yes. Criticize, No: The Right Way to Fight (and Build a Better Relationship)

It’s easy to make the situation worse when something goes wrong in a professional or personal relationship. Here’s a four-step process to ensure that doesn’t happen to you.

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BY Jeff Haden - 03 Sep 2018

Complain, Yes. Criticize, No: The Right Way to Fight (and Build a Better Relationship)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You've done something wrong. Or thoughtless. Or stupid. Maybe -- probably -- you've done it before.

Like being late.

Your partner gets frustrated. Irritated. Upset. Feelings naturally boil over when you finally show up.

"You're such a jerk!" he or she says. "You're twenty minutes late. You're the most inconsiderate person I know!"

When that happens, we (and by "we," I mean "me") typically don't hear the part about being twenty minute late. We hear "jerk." We hear "most inconsiderate person I know."

So we get defensive. We don't respond by talking about now; we talk about all the times we have been on time. For good measure we throw in a few times the other person was late and how we didn't get all upset about it.

The result? What should be a conversation about a specific behavior turns into an argument about who we are as a person -- and about who the other person is, for judging us so harshly.

Which means it always gets ugly -- and that an otherwise great professional or personal relationship won't last.

But that doesn't have to happen.

According to John Gottman, the author of The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples (a book I discovered via the always excellent Eric Barker), "...the findings suggest that starting with attack is less likely to result in non-defensive or empathic listening."

Or more to the point: Attacking the other person will make them defensive... and much less likely to listen to what you really want to say.

Which -- if you're a boss, or a partner, or a friend -- and you're hoping to bring attention to and possibly even change another person's behavior, is the last thing you want to happen.

So what should you do instead?

1. See the problem as your problem.

Sure, he's rarely on time. But that clearly doesn't bother him. Otherwise he wouldn't be late all the time. His behavior bothers you.

When you see a problem as your problem to fix, you're a lot less likely to get mad and a lot more likely to take a constructive approach. Instead of saying, "You need to fix this!" you'll think, "Hmm. What is the best way for me to make this situation better?"

When you do that, you'll naturally...

2. Focus on the specific behavior.

The fact he's often late doesn't make him a jerk. Tardiness isn't a character defect. It's just a behavior.

So don't start the conversation by talking about character. Talk about what happened. Talk about the result. Talk, calmly, about how that behavior made you feel.

One approach Eric recommends is to say, "When you're late, it makes me feel like I'm not important to you."

If you translate that to a work setting, don't say, "You're late again. Could you be any lazier?"

Instead say, "You're ten minutes late, which meant the rest of the team couldn't get started." Then you focus on behavior -- and highlight the professional ramifications of that behavior.

Always focus on the behavior, not the person. While we are what we do, we are the sum of all our parts -- not one behavior.

3. Avoid escalation.

No one enjoys being told what they did wrong. And everyone enjoys being told what they did right.

According to Gottman, "The ratio of positive to negative affect during conflict in stable relationships is 5 to 1; in couples headed for divorce, it is 0.8 to 1 or less."

(Which means a relationship where more negatives than positives are shared is a relationship in huge trouble -- and a supervisor who criticizes an employee more often than he or she praises that employee is ensuring a disengaged and demotivated employee.)

But keep in mind, as Barker points out, that the ratio of positive to negative is 5 to 1, not 5 to 0. If a behavior is a problem, you have to say so. But the key is to avoid escalation -- which is where the positives come in.

Talk about what the other person does well. Talk about how you feel -- or the affect on performance -- when the other person does come through.

By spending time on positives you implicitly reinforce the behavior you hope to see.

And you have a much better chance of the other person listening to -- and caring about -- what you have to say.

4. Realize that sometimes things just won't change. (And that may be okay.)

It's easy to focus on an employee's occasional diva-like behavior... and forget he's an incredible engineer. It's easy to focus on how a freelancer's vampire-style work hours negatively affect team communication... and forget that she's a superstar programmer.

It's easy to focus on the fact a friend is often late... and forget all the things you like about her.

According to Gottman, "Only 31 percent of couples' major area of continuing disagreement was about a resolvable issue. Much more frequently--69 percent of the time--it was about an unresolvable, perpetual problem."

Then you have a choice. With employees, the behavior you can't live with is rarely skills-based; more often it's terrible interpersonal skills, a horrible work ethic, or a larger than life ego. In that case, identify the behaviors you can't live with and make sure they stay off your team.

In a personal relationship the same applies. There are many behaviors you may not like... but if you take a step back and consider the whole, you'll often find you can live with. (And possibly even come to appreciate.)

Others you can't. And that's okay.

Just make sure you focus on the whole person -- not just that one behavior that will never change.

As Gottman says, "What mattered most was not resolution of these perpetual problems but the affect that occurred around discussion of them. The goal of happily married couples seemed to be establish a 'dialogue' around the perpetual problem--one that included shared humor and affection and communicated acceptance of the partner and even amusement."

In short, some behaviors you just can't change.

But you can accept them. And possibly even laugh together about them.

Which might be the best "solution" of all.

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