If we seek out a professional person, the probability is that we want them to tell us how they think things really are. That will include measurements of ourselves. We may also turn to friends, family and colleagues for feedback on how we’re doing. We might invite criticism. We’re allowed to do that. We’re also allowed to speak plainly if someone asks us to.
Misjudge, and an unsolicited compliment can be creepy, patronising, or even a put down. I’ve blogged about that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/swimming-metaphorically-with-the-social-jellyfish/
However, what’s interesting to me at the moment is what happens when people feel the need to give unsolicited criticism. ‘Let me tell you what you’re really like’ is seldom the prelude to a compliment.
Shit happens. People make mistakes. Things go wrong. Most of us are dealing with this kind of thing in small ways on a daily basis. It’s important to identify what went wrong, it may be relevant to identify who was responsible or what could be changed to improve things. When we’re focused on action, choices, behaviour even, we’re talking about things that can change. It’s not terrible to be told that something needs to be better or could be worked on. We’re all flawed and human and we all need to be able to talk to each other about these things.
However, it’s a very different business when we want to tell the other person who they are. You are this, you are that… It’s not a big problem with compliments – you are lovely, you are kind, you are considerate, you are generous, you are brilliant – most people don’t object to hearing things like this. You are useless, you are horrible, you are stupid, you are creepy – no one wants to hear this. I’m not convinced it’s a helpful thing to do, either.
Firstly it makes the problem intrinsic, it doesn’t invite change or tell the person much about how they could change. ‘When you do this I find it difficult’ is more useful. ‘When you say X I feel Y’ can be a place to start a process. But when we say ‘you are’ in critical ways, it comes across as judgement and rejection. If you are terrible, how can there be scope for change?
If we talk about how we experience each other, there’s room to talk about why. Projection and historical baggage can so easily be part of the mix. We may use words in different ways, or have triggers or anxieties. If we can share what we experience, we can negotiate with each other, and learn to co-operate more effectively.
‘You are’ statements can be a form of power over. The person speaking has given themselves a status, an entitlement to label and categories the other person, to judge them, and to say what is going on. It puts all the responsibility for the situation onto the other person. It denies even the possibility of a problem being collective, not individual.
It’s not something I often do, but it is something I’ve done in states of rage on a few occasions. For me, it marks the end of a dialogue. It’s something that doesn’t come up often in my life, but that I’d like to handle more effectively. On the whole I think the only ‘you are’ statement I want to use henceforth in a critical way should go ‘you are not someone I can continue interacting with’ – give or take.
The desire to make someone understand an uncomfortable truth can, at the time, come from a place of wanting justice, recognition, or fair treatment. But in practice, when I’ve got to this point with someone, it’s because those things were entirely absent. There’s nothing I can say that will change anything. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in dropping a truth-bomb like this before walking away, but how much good that really does anyone – myself included – I am uncertain.