Friday, February 13, 2015

Kindly Change

On the eve of Valentine's Day, I think it's only appropriate that I blog about two articles about relationships that I've read recently that I think offer invaluable advice.

The first, by Duana Welch, focuses on two crucial qualities that should characterize every relationship: kindness and respect.

As Welch points out, "Kind people treat others well regardless of what type of day they're having."  Easier said than done, some days, but I think Welch's point still holds.  People who regularly use the excuse of having a "bad day" as a pretext for lashing out are probably fundamentally unkind.  Because, as Welch also points out, kind people generally try to go out of their way to avoid being mean-spirited even when they don't like someone.

This is because, on a very basic level, being mean-spirited conflicts with their core values.  In my own experience, when I find myself being unkind or saying unkind things, I know that there's something seriously wrong with me, with the situation and with the way that I'm feeling about the situation.

In most cases, what's bothering me is something much deeper than what is happening in the moment itself.  Typically, I'm feeling hurt or threatened in some way, and my unkindness is a way of saying "back off!"

And this leads to the second relationship quality that Welch (and Aretha Franklin) identify as crucial: r-e-s-p-e-c-t.  Again, easier said than done, particularly when you fundamentally dislike another person.

Welch suggests that you should pay close attention to how a person treats other people--not just how they treat you (the person they presumably like).  If they can navigate their way to at least a semblance of cordiality when they are confronted with a person they'd rather not encounter, chances are, they believe that human beings in general--and not just the people they happen to fancy--are deserving of kindness and respect.

The second article, by Steven Stosny, examines what psychologist John Gottman identifies as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (relationship-apocalypse, that is): criticism.

I think this is a tricky one because I really do believe that people who are critical of others think that they're doing the world a favor.  Who better to point out the flaws of others and right the world's wrongs than the critical among us?  They possess such keen insight... or so they think.

As Mark Twain once quipped, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's bad habits."

The problem, of course, is that the critical among us become so fixated on the bad habits of others that they lose sight of a few of their own.

Perhaps more importantly, however, as Stosny points out, frequent practitioners of criticism end up working against their own interests.

Criticism is one of the least effective ways of bringing about change.  If you want people to mend their ways, you need to get them to cooperate, somehow, and agree to work toward the goals that you believe are important.

And so I ask you: consider the last time you spent a chunk of time having your faults pointed out to you by a certain someone.  How cooperative did you feel when it was over?  Chances are, if you went along with anything they said, you probably did so in order to shut them up, and if you did, you then undid whatever you did the minute you could.

More likely, you simply dug in your heels and became defensive.  Because, as Stosny points out, criticism fosters resistance.  It's as simple as that.

If you want someone to change what s/he is doing, you need to find a way to first show that you value them for who they are.  In a nutshell, be kind and respectful and you won't need to criticize.  As Stosny points out, criticism is really a form of ego-defense: it's not about what the other person is doing, it's about what the critical person feels about him/herself in relation to the other person's behavior that fuels criticism.

Criticism isn't about trying to change someone else, really--it's about trying to control them.  And the desire to control is, in the end, neither kind nor respectful.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."