Reframing Critics and Criticism

As the example of the father and his teenage son illustrates, reframing can be an effective method for dealing with critics and criticism. "Critics" are often considered the most difficult people to handle in an interaction because of their seemingly negative focus and their tendency to find problems with the ideas and suggestions of others. Critics are frequently perceived as "spoilers," because they operate from a "problem frame" or "failure frame." (Dreamers, on the other hand, function from the "'as if' frame," and realists act from the "outcome frame" and "feedback frame.")

A major problem with criticisms, on a linguistic level, is that they are typically asserted in the form of generalized judgments, such as: "This proposal is too costly," "That idea will never work," "That's not a realistic plan," "This project requires too much effort," etc. One problem with such verbal generalizations, is that, given the way they are stated, one can only agree or disagree with them. If a person says, "That idea will never work," or, "It is too expensive," the only way one can respond directly is to say, either "I guess you are right," or "No, you are wrong, the idea will work," or, "No, it is not too expensive." Thus, criticism usually leads to polarization, mismatching and ultimately conflict, if one does not agree with the criticism.

The most challenging problems occur when a critic doesn't merely criticize a dream or a plan, but begins to criticize the "dreamer" or "realist" on a personal level. This would be the difference between saying, "That idea is stupid," and, "You are stupid for having that idea." When a critic attacks a person at the identity level then the critic is not only a "spoiler," but also a "killer."

It is important to keep in mind, however, that criticism, like all other behavior, is positively intended. The purpose of the 'critic' is to evaluate the output of the 'dreamer' and 'realist'. An effective critic makes an analysis of the proposed plan or path in order to find out what could go wrong and what should be avoided. Critics find missing links by logically considering 'what would happen if problems occur. Good critics often take the perspective of people not directly involved in the plan or activity being presented, but who may be effected by it, or influence the implementation of the plan or activity (either positively or negatively).

Getting Positive Statements of Positive Intentions

One of the problems with many criticisms is that, in addition to being "negative" judgments, they are stated in negative terms linguistically - that is, they are stated in the form of a verbal negation. "Avoiding stress," and "becoming more relaxed and comfortable," for example, are two ways of verbally describing a similar internal state, even though they use quite different words. One statement ("avoiding stress") describes what is not wanted. The other statement ("becoming more relaxed and comfortable") describes what is wanted.

Similarly, many criticisms are framed in terms of what is not wanted, rather than what is wanted. As an example, the positive intent (or criterion) behind the criticism, "this is a waste of time," is probably the desire to "use available resources wisely and efficiently." This intention is not easy to ascertain from the "surface structure" of the criticism however, because it has been stated in terms of what is to be avoided. Thus, a key linguistic skill in addressing criticisms, and transforming problem frames to outcome frames, is the ability to recognize and elicit positive statements of positive intentions.

This can be challenging at times, because critics operate so much from a problem frame. For example, if you ask a critic for the positive intention behind a criticism such as, "This proposal is too expensive," you are likely to get a response like, "The intention is to avoid excessive costs." Notice that, while this is a "positive intention," it is linguistically stated or framed negatively—i.e., it states what is to be "avoided" rather than what is to be achieved. The positive statement of this intention would be something like, "To make sure it is affordable" or "To be certain we are within our budget."

To elicit the positive formulations of intentions and criteria, one needs to ask questions such as: "If (stress/expense/ failure/waste) is what you do not want, then what is it that you do want?" or "What would it get for you (how would you benefit) if you were able to avoid or get rid of what you do not want?"

The following are some examples of positive reformulations of negative statements.

Negative Statement too expensive waste of time fear of failure unrealistic too much effort stupid

Positive Reformulation affordable use available resources wisely desire to succeed concrete and achievable easy and comfortable wise and intelligent

Turning Criticisms Into Questions

Once the positive intention of a criticism has been discovered and stated in positive terms, the criticism can be turned into a question. When a criticism is transformed into a question, the options for responding to it are completely different than if it is stated as a generalization or judgment. Say, for instance, that instead of saying, "It is too expensive," the critic asked, "How are we going to afford it?" When asked this question, the other person is given the possibility of outlining the details of the plan, rather than having to disagree with, or fight with the critic. This is true for practically every criticism. The criticism, "That idea will never work," can be transformed into the question: "How are you going to actually implement that idea?" "That's not a realistic plan," can be restated as: "How can you make the steps of your plan more tangible and concrete?" The complaint, "It requires too much effort," can be reformulated to, "How can you make it easier and simpler to put into action?" Typically such questions serve the same purpose as the criticism, but are much more productive.

Notice that the questions above are all 'how' questions. These types of questions tend to be the most useful. Why questions, for instance, often presuppose other judgments, which can lead back into conflict or disagreement, lb ask, "Why is this proposal so expensive?", or "Why can't you be more realistic?" still presuppose a problem frame. The same is true with questions like, "What makes your proposal so expensive?" or "Who is going to pay for it?" In general, 'how' questions are most effective for refocusing on an outcome frame or feedback frame.

[Note: On the level of their deeper structure, criticisms are ontological statements - assertions of what something 'is' or 'is not'. How questions lead to epistemological explorations -the examination of'how you know' what is or is not.J

Helping Critics to be Advisors

In summary, in order to help someone to be a 'constructive' critic, or an advisor, it helps to: 1) find the positive purpose behind the criticism, 2) make sure the positive intention is stated (framed) positively, and 3) turn the criticism into a question - and in particular, into a 'how' question.

This can be accomplished by using the following sequence of questions:

1. What is your criticism or objection? e.g., "What you are proposing is superficial

2. What is the criterion or positive intention behind that criticism? What is it that you are attempting to achieve or preserve through your criticism?

e.g., "Deep and lasting change."

3. Given that that's the intention, what is the HOW question that needs to be asked?

e.g., "How can you be sure that the proposal will address the key issues that are necessary for deep and lasting changeV

Practice this process by trying it out on yourself. Think of some area in your life in which you are attempting to manifest new values or beliefs, and go into a "critic" position with respect to yourself. What objections or problems do you find with yourself or what you are doing?

When you have identified some problems or objections, go through the steps defined above, in order to turn your criticisms into questions. Find the positive intention and the how question related to your self-criticism (it sometimes helps to do it with a partner). Once the criticisms have become questions, you can take them to the "dreamer" or "realist" within you in order to formulate appropriate answers.

Ultimately, the objectives of the critic phase of a project are to make sure an idea or plan is ecologically sound and preserves any positive benefits or by-products of the current way(s) of achieving the goal. When a critic asks 'how' questions, then he or she shifts from being a "spoiler" or "killer" to being an "advisor."

[Note: It is also useful to guide the critic to first acknowledge which criteria have been met before commenting on what is missing or needed.]

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