“Giving Feedback” Sounds So Much Better…

…than “criticizing.” Fair or not, “criticism” as a commonly understood term has assumed in usage and understanding the mantle of that which is unproductive and/or hurtful. Even the phonemic construction of the words reflect this – the hard consonants and buzzing sibilants of “criticism,” versus the breathed softness of “feedback.” But feedback, or constructive criticism, or whatever, is one of the primary means by which we humans both check and nourish each other, how we rein in socially disruptive and/or destructive behavior, and encourage socially constructive behavior. (How we determine the finer points of what’s “destructive” and “constructive” waits for another post.)

So here, from the venerable “Psychology Today,” is a quite good guide to providing effective criticism, errrr, feedback, er, whatever. This is aimed at parents, but applies to most situations  with adults or children.

For starters, according to psychologist Susan Heitler, “skip the complaining and go straight to the explaining.” As an example, instead of saying, “That’s not the way to sauté, that will dry out the potatoes,” offer direct and easily understood  instructions, such as: “If you start out with a hot skillet, the potatoes won’t stick and get mushy…keep stirring until the onions are translucent, add a little more butter…you got it.”

Next, whether you’re offering instructions or making requests, choose encouraging statements over judgments and characterizations. Say what you would prefer your child to do rather than lecturing or getting upset over what she has not done or has done incorrectly. To wit: “I’d love to see your playroom cleaned up by this weekend so you and your friends can have fun downstairs,” as opposed to “This place is a mess! What have you been doing? You haven’t picked up one thing. No one is coming over this weekend until this room is spotless.” It’s critical (!) to remember that criticism is the single most determinative factor in a child’s perception of the parental relationship. It’s vital to provide feedback without demeaning or humiliating your child’s feelings or character (unless, of course, you’d like your child to be insecure, emotionally closed off, depressed, anxious…if that’s the case, go for it).

If you are in fact disappointed with your child’s behavior, channel the feeling into a fact-finding discussion – ask your child to evaluate his own behavior, and what he learned from the experience. If he’s unhappy with the outcome, ask what he might do differently the next time, and what he feels he needs from you and others in order to do as well as he wants. Criticism – that is, harsh or unfeeling or dismissing or invalidating or insensitive or thoughtless feedback – can be damaging to all relationships and individual mental health. The single best predictor of relapse for married adults with depression is their response to the question “How critical is your spouse of you?” Patients who relapsed rated their spouses as more critical than patients who remained well.

Finally, and without editing: We are social creatures, and the way we say things has real power. To show care when choosing how to phrase something is a way to honor, and safeguard, any relationship. And that, dear friends, is the word.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Just a little check in rubric, a way to see how my life may or may not be hewing to where I’d like it. Borrowed and edited, of course, but what isn’t these days? Enjoy…

1. Make a list of how you want to spend your time. What matters to you? Then make a list of how you actually spent your time, on average, each day over the past week. How well do your commitments actually match your goals?

2. If you could become extraordinarily good at one thing versus being pretty good at many things, which approach would you choose? Why?

3. Choose five values that best describe your core values. How might you deal with a situation where your core values come into conflict with one another?

thinking pooh

Word of the Day

Ingenuous (in-JEN-yoo-uhs)  adjective: Guileless; innocent; frank; naive.

Double edged sword, ingenuousness. Does anyone truly want to be closed off, cynical, duplicitous? On the other hand, doesn’t “guileless; innocent; frank; naive” outside of childhood carry a trace of fecklessness, of willful ignorance? Or maybe ingenuousness, in some measure, is exactly needed in truly intimate relationships. Can one remain truly innocent and naive through the suffering of life’s slings and arrows? Or is ingenuous not a perfect synonym for, but maybe precursor and foundation to adult openness, acceptance, honesty, and directness? Can one be both curious and thoughtful, that is, open to experience and mindful of its implications, as opposed to ingenuous or cynical, where the disillusionment of one does seem to engender the other? Inquiring minds want to know…..

Henry David Thoreau, Again

From Walden, of course.

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived [in the woods] a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.”

No, you did not “go below,” Henry. You forged a path of individualist ethos that shapes the American character to this day. Some may have misread your secular homilies as release from responsibility to community, from the commons, but this is a reductive misreading and misunderstanding of your words, context, and intent. You lived and worked within an active community, visited daily – sometimes several times daily – by relatives and townspeople, a fabric of community that allowed and engendered your freedom of spirit.

This, then is Thoreau’s message: it is only within and from community human spirit rises; the loam of human connection nourishes and supports the growth of the radiant sunflower. Thank you for your spirit, Henry David Thoreau. And thank you to the love inherent to human connection that allowed it.

March 31st, 2016

It’s the last day of March. Spring, such as it is, has entered, haltingly, Texas summer close behind. The southern wind, warm and wet with humidity, rolls in like a blanket, makes itself at home. The world seems to pause – holding on and letting go, a momentary irruption in time, Earth’s gathering before the charge of boreal summer, hot with life’s fecundity.

A world in transition, the greatest transition of all – from one climate to another, from the climate which allowed civilization as we know it to one in which much is at risk, and stake. Our children, and their children, and their children and their children and their children look to us, watching carefully to see how we, us, our parent’s children deal with the greatest challenge humankind has faced, and possibly will ever face. Will we preserve a planetary biosphere amenable to civilization as we know it? Or will we leave a scorched blue/brown space marble, ruined and hostile to complex human society, dead of the vast complexity of life as we know it? The choices we make now – not some time in the future, not tomorrow, not next year, no, NOW – will determine this. This choice is, more than any other, ours.

‘Smart’phone, My Tuchas

I offer the following, excerpted from “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots” in today’s NY Times Magazine, without comment. All right, small comment. With our unquestioned acquiescence to and willing, near total immersion in screens, especially so-called ‘smart’phones, humans, as a species, have embarked on an immense, uncontrolled, (un)natural experiment on the nature of what it means to be…human. Aside from sophomoric philosophical and technophilic rationalizations, all evidence to date shows cartoon man phone postthat by relieving humanity of the distasteful, unpleasant, difficult burden of, you know, thinking, those insidious little devices in front of everyone’s faces are crippling our cognition, from memory to imagination to navigation to problem solving to…think for a moment. If the brain, as is so often said, is like a muscle, then what happens when this ‘muscle’ is increasingly relieved of responsibility for the tasks for which it was actually designed – for instance, navigating the world in which we live? This is, after all, the essence of oh-so-desirable “fluid intelligence,” i.e., the ability to manage and solve real world problems in real time…in the real world. A quick look around shows where we really are – distracted, thoughtless, entranced, oblivious, and yes, addicted.

women looking phoneSo the therapist says….turn off your phone. That’s right, turn it off, and leave it off. Turn it off when you go to bed. Turn it off when you’re not at work. Turn off all notifications, and turn off the ringer when you’re eating dinner (for instance). Turn it off for at least a couple hours every day. And for god’s sake – stop using GPS. Your brain will thank you.

So, here are my excerpts from the article. As always, please take the time to read the original, here. Well worth your time. And – turn off your phone (you knew that was coming).


“What seems clear is that our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future. And though our sense of direction often feels innate, it may develop…when we investigate and judge the permanence of landmarks…our decisions about the stability of objects [and] way-finding intersect with other basic cognitive skills that, like memory, are…crucial…to survival.

…our ability to [incorporate memories and directions into mental constructions of of scenes] evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, [therefore] the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story…recent studies have shown that people who use GPS…draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass…[apparently] because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost [gives you] the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective. From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.

From the moment our nomad ancestors wandered out of Africa until a few decades ago, locating yourself required interacting in some way with the environment: following the stars or…reading a compass or a street sign. Then…we became…followers of step-by-step instructions that obviated the need to look around at all…the United States military and…Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern about their overwhelming reliance on GPS…[t]he United States Naval Academy has once again begun training midshipmen how to take their position from the stars with a sextant.”

Like the man said, the choice is yours: Use your brain the way it was intended, in the real world solving real world problems, or lose your ability to think. Buenas noches, y buena suerte.

children looking phones

Change Is Hard!

Yes, yes it is. Read the following stuff over at Vox, a great social/political website run by Ezra Klein (formerly of the Washington Post). I heavily edited it, so all mistakes are mine. change bwThe original article is by Lisa Lahey, a member of the faculty at Harvard, so you know it’s at least worth a gander. The ideas in the article are from her book, Immunity to Change (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read). As usual, read the original article Breaking bad habits for the full monty.

So: why is real, lasting change so hard? Good question. Rather than try to answer this myself, fallible human that I am, I’ll let Professor Lahey field the question of “Why is it so darn hard to create real, lasting change?”

1) Achieving difficult change requires seeing your internal, personal landscape

Looking at what goes on inside ourselves can be uncomfortable, discouraging, distressing or painful. Often negative feelings don’t lead anywhere productive, and we can feel like we’ve wasted our time.

Seeing your inner contradictions, however, helps to clarify the problem you need to solve. More importantly, you will not find the right solution if you don’t truly understand the problem. It’s not that you’re weak-willed; the problem is we all have an unconscious drive to protect ourselves, which is guaranteed to keep us from accomplishing our desired goals.

2) Our standard change methods are flawed

Most of us think change works like this:

Clear goal + Action plan + Monitoring our behavior + Willpower = Change

There’s one small problem here — more often than not it doesn’t work. On the surface this process makes sense; clear goals, motivation and willpower are clearly necessary ingredients to change. So why doesn’t it work? Because it relies on two assumptions: 1) we can succeed by directly changing our problematic behaviors into desired behaviors, and 2) we can consistently apply our willpower.

Neither of these are correct. Humans are complex creatures; we always have competing commitments and goals. While we’re often unaware of these contradictory impulses, that doesn’t make them any less real. They exist, and they constantly affect our behavior. Before we can act in new ways, then, we have to understand our unconscious, competing  goals so we can adjust accordingly.

An example: You sincerely want to lose weight, and at the same time you may internally feel a commitment to any of the following opposite goals: not lose your independence or spontaneity by following a diet; not appear vain and concerned about your looks; not risk being rejected by your friends and family. At some point you will start to lose weight. As soon as that starts happening, you’re now in conflict with your internal, competing goals. The more weight you lose, the more inhibited, vain, and vulnerable to rejection you feel. Not surprisingly, these strong, unconscious emotions win out over the best of conscious intentions – every time.

street through post

3) Maintaining the status quo takes a lot of energy

So in a sense the mind (or more specifically our emotions), like the body, has an immune system that exists for one critical purpose: to protect us, even to save our lives. An immune system is not an illness, disease, weakness, or problem that needs to be fixed. It is an intelligent, beautiful phenomenon that only wants to take care of us. But your immune system — physical or mental — can still get you in trouble, even when working as designed.

When the immune system is in error, when it sees a danger that is not there, it will still go to work to “protect” you from the very awareness you need in order to thrive. For example, will you really feel vain if you lose weight? And will this matter more than losing weight? No amount of willpower is going to help resolve this internal contraction. Fortunately, misguided immune systems can be overcome. First, though, you need to see the contradiction.

4) Recognize the ways you sabotage yourself

So: how can you overcome an interfering immune system? Through the following series of specific questions you can discover how you might be (unintentionally) working against the change you want, and how to take steps toward creating sustainable change. Follow these prompts and write your responses down in a four-column grid.

Column 1: Identify an improvement goal that means a lot to you and meets the following criteria:

It is important to you
It’s about you, not someone else
It’s a positive action step, i.e., something to gain, not eliminate

Column 2: List all of your behaviors that work against that important goal.

Look at this list as valuable information to identify competing, hidden commitments, NOT things to be eradicated.

Column 3: Imagine yourself doing the opposite of each of the behaviors you wrote in column two. Then:

What worry or fear comes up? That’s your competing commitment. You now see your “immune system.” This is the “problem” you need to solve, not your behaviors.

Column 4: What assumptions are you making about yourself or about others and the world that explain why you hold your competing goal?

This last step is a deeper one. These unspoken and often unconscious assumptions are the ultimate source of the anxiety shaping any of our obstructive behaviors, and so can be the gateway to substantial, lasting change.

5) Identify and test the big assumptions that are holding you back

By putting words to the assumptions that protect us, we test them and usually discover them to be false and/or limiting. So: ask yourself if your assumptions are true. Look at them carefully and in detail. Will you really be vain or self centered for losing weight? Will you really be rejected by friends and family? Imagine how you’d feel if these limiting assumptions were false or inaccurate. Would you feel a sense of relief, or freedom? What would that be like?
Finally, as you put your plan into place, examine if your assumptions are true. Test them against your experience. Do they hold up? As you lose weight, does that really make you vain? Which actually feels better – losing weight, or feeling vulnerable to rejection?

6) Failing to achieve a goal in the past does not predict your ability to achieve that goal now or in the future

Many people blame themselves for their failure to change. They think they had insufficient motivation or willpower and beat themselves up for it. They feed their inner critic, which leads to negative self talk, like this: “You are bad and flawed.” We usually attribute our lack of success to one of three ideas: not enough motivation, insufficient planning, or not enough willpower. While some of this may be accurate, if you’re not seeing the change you want it’s almost certain there are deeper internal contradictions that need to be addressed. Remember, in order to effect lasting change you need to 1) recognize and acknowledge these contradictions and 2) begin questioning and testing them. Good luck!

change process