At Safe Conversations, one of the concepts you hear often when going through a workshop, or taking in one of our digital products, is the importance of talking without criticism, listening without judgment, and connecting beyond differences. 

This week, we’ll be breaking down what it means to do that, starting with:

Talking without criticism.

This seems pretty obvious, but it’s a lot harder than you may think. When we talk without criticism, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have difficult conversations or bring up things that need to be addressed. Quite the opposite, in fact. It just means that we are communicating with respect and with empathy. Being critical is easy; it takes compassion and skill to talk without criticism.

Nobody is really “good” at delivering criticism and criticism is rarely well-received.  When I criticize you for whatever reason, your brain subconsciously takes that criticism as a threat, as an indicator of potential danger; you naturally feel attacked, and immediately go into defense mode. 

Now, under those conditions, what do you think we’ll actually accomplish in the ensuing conversation?  Statistically, we’ll likely spend the rest of our time arguing about the criticism instead of addressing whatever the original issue was. 

Not the productive, adult discussion we were going for. 

Alternatively, if I address you with specific suggestions for what I DO like instead of criticism for what I DON’T, your brain experiences that as an act of collaboration, a safe and positive gesture; you naturally feel safe and included, and go into co-operation mode. 

NOW we’re talking – literally.  

Under these conditions, we can speak safely about the issue at hand and get it resolved, with no drama, hurt feelings, or fear of the next conversation.  Et voila! Precisely the productive, adult conversation we were going for.  

Here’s a tip that will go a long way toward your goal of talking without criticism.  Instead of saying “You ALWAYS do this…” or “You did really poorly at this…” and pointing the finger, use positive, collaborative phrases like:

“I think our relationship would benefit greatly if…”
“I’d love it if…”
“Would you be open to…” 

Suggesting what you need rather than what the other is doing wrong demonstrates your empathy and care for that person’s feelings. It opens the door for a safe dialogue.

Brene Brown, acclaimed researcher, author, and champion of empathy, has a saying: “Clear is Kind; Unclear is Unkind.” That pretty much sums it up.

Being vague may be easy on you at the moment, but it leads to confusion and possibly resentment if the other person leaves the conversation not clearly understanding what you meant. No wonder things don’t happen the way you expected, and when you criticize them for not doing it right, the cycle continues.  

Practice giving specific examples of what you’re talking about and/or specific outcomes that you’d like to see. This gives the conversation a clear direction and any changes that may need to be made, a destination to arrive at. 

Having conversations without criticism, even difficult ones, is possible. It takes some practice and a commitment to change, but it’s so worth the effort. Being specific and empathetic with others benefits you and the people you’re talking to in ways you can’t even measure, and will noticeably improve all your relationships. Spend the next few days being mindful of the conversations you have with others, and focus on talking without criticism.