Ambigamy

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Seven habits of sometimes effective critics: Unreliable sure-fire recipes for speaking your mind

Unreliable sure-fire recipes for speaking your mind
Sure-fire recipes are wonderful things, and the history of civilization can be read as the search for and discovery of such recipes. Unfortunately, it can also be read as a long line of claims to have discovered allegedly sure-fire recipes that turn out to be not so sure-fire after all.

Every day we experience the influence of such claims in what I call "methodoxy": an orthodox commitment to a method or recipe for social conduct that supposedly is always both virtuous and effective but in reality isn't.

Take such common debating assertions as "Please don't interrupt me," "Don't finish my sentence for me," or "Don't assume you know what I feel." These are conveyed as though citing a rule that the righteous never interrupt, finish sentences, or presume to say what others feel. It's not a true rule, though. Doing any of these things is often perfectly welcome. Only sometimes do they trigger this claim of universal unrighteousness.

Methodoxy might be warranted in some cases, but I have yet to find any. In fact, I have yet to find a single recipe for virtuous communication that can't backfire or be abused--most certainly not "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Think how easily it can be used as an excuse for not speaking up when someone is being wronged. Think how grateful we are to the historical heroes who said things that at the time were not considered nice.

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Then there are those who say that even if you don't have anything nice to say, you can still say it so long as you say it nicely, and that there is a nice way to say anything. I count myself as part of this camp--even though, as noted (see The Tact Game), I don't believe in its premise as an absolute, either.

Here I'll list seven of the supposedly nice ways to say anything. They have all been promoted as sure-fire, though none of them really is.

So here they are, the unreliable sure-fire methods for speaking your mind:

1. Simple and direct: Just say what's on your mind. "Rinse the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher." This approach can come across as either refreshing and disarming or assaultive and harsh: "Wow, that was cold. You made no effort to make me feel OK about your critique."

2. Kidding: Tease about the behavior you want changed. "You must think the dishwasher keeps food safe for human consumption, because next time we use these plates we're going to be eating leftovers that you didn't rinse off them." Effective if you're addressing someone who can find a way to laugh with you; mean-spirited if you're not. "You think laughing at me is going to win me over to your perspective?!"

3. "I" message: Don't speak with authority and moralize, just say how the behavior makes you feel. "When you don't rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, I feel disappointed." This kind of statement can feel very honest, humble, and authentic--or it can seem disingenuous and like beating around the bush: "Why say that you feel disappointed, when what you really mean is that you want me to change?"

4. Keep it impersonal: Don't pit yourself against the other person. Talk about simple cause and effect: "When people don't rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, they don't get clean and the people get sick." This approach keeps personalities out of it, but can also sound like you're pulling rank: "Who do you think you are telling me how the world works?"

5. Ask doubt-provoking questions: Don't make statements at all. Instead ask whether they've considered doing things differently. "Darling, have you considered rinsing the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher?" It can sound authentically interested, receptive, and respectful, or can sound manipulative: "Why do you ask? Clearly you're not asking what I want, you're just asking as a sneaky way to weigh in on how I do things."

6. Briskly sugar coated: one-minute manager style. Bookend your critique with positive statements. "It's wonderful that you did the dishes. Next time rinse them first, and run the soak cycle, and don't use so much soap, but really, that was great." It can soften the confrontation but again can feel manipulative: "Wow, you think muttering some boilerplate positivity will fool me? How patronizing."

7. Brisk and self-effacing: State the feedback plainly and then give an example of applying the same feedback to yourself. "The dishes didn't get rinsed last time you did them. I sometimes forget to rinse them too." It can make your feedback less threatening, but can also feel like manipulative soft-pedaling. "Who says I forgot? I don't believe in rinsing and I don't appreciate your underhanded way of implying that I share your standards."

I rely mostly on style 7, brisk and self-effacing. I call it one-anothermanship. I consider it an antidote to one-upmanship. But does it always work? Certainly not. It can be annoying. One friend considered it pre-emptive. I strike with my critique and then, before anyone can point out that I'm a pot calling the kettle black, I beat them too it.

I think I know why none of the seven are sure-fire. Their erratic success record stems from the ambivalence we feel about honesty and kindness. These qualities sound like good things, but they can be dreadful. People's honest opinions about us can feel and even be harsh, disappointing, and cruel. Genuine kindness can feel manipulative, patronizing, and disrespectful--and much of what people think they mean as kindness can really be manipulative, patronizing, and disrespectful. Dishonesty and unkindness are no fun, but honesty and kindness aren't always fun either. And the trade-offs are often inescapable. Sometimes what's honest feels unkind and vice versa. As a result any of the following recipes can feel either too blunt or too manipulative depending on context.

As close to a sure fire-recipe as I've found is not expecting one. That way, I remember to try to pay good attention to who I'm talking to, and to tailor the least unpromising technique to fit as well as I can figure out.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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