A recent article in Psychology Today validates my Silver Rule of Consensus, “Avoid making other people wrong.” The particular form of wrong making addressed in the PT article is criticism. Author Mary Loftus states, “There is mounting evidence that criticism can be damaging to all relationships and individual mental health.”
More specifically, Loftus says, criticism is the most significant factor in a child’s perception of her relationship with her parents. And for married adults with depression, the best predictor of relapse is the patient’s answer to the question, “How critical is your spouse of you?” Not surprisingly, the patients who rated their spouses as most critical were the ones who relapsed.
In my field, persuasion and consensus building, the primary reason to avoid criticism, if possible, is that it works against persuasiveness. People instinctively resist our criticism, even when we think it’s the “constructive” variety. So, if we can persuade without criticizing, or at least minimize the wrong making, we are more likely to reach our goal with the other person and to reach it more quickly.
This is true even with children. Tell them what you would prefer them to do, rather than putting them down for what they did or didn’t do. For example, instead of “Turn off that television. You haven’t done a bit of homework yet,” you might try, “I’d love to see your homework done by 8:00 so we can watch your new DVD before bedtime.”
The article also gives a nice example of one of my favorite techniques—using questions, rather than statements, to avoid or minimize wrong making. Suppose the child does not begin to study for a test until 9:00 PM, and so, doesn’t finish until midnight. The next day, after school, you might ask him how he thinks he did on his test. If he is not satisfied with his performance, you can then ask what he might do differently next time in order to have a better experience.
This works well with adults, too. The many uses and virtues of questions are discussed more fully in Bridges to Consensus–in Congregations, Chapter 10.
Another useful technique, for which Loftus cites Dr. Susan Heitler, is to skip the complaint and jump straight to the reason the other person should do things the way you suggest. For example, instead of, “Please don’t over cook my eggs. I hate them all dried out,” you might say, “If you’ll take my share of the scrambled eggs out of the pan while they’re still moist, they’ll continue setting from their own internal heat and be just the way I like them by the time yours are the way you like them.”
This, too, meshes with one of my primary skills for building consensus. Instead of taking, or responding to positions, we talk about the underlying interests driving what we think, or say, we want. Talking about interests often amounts to talking about reasons.
Those accustomed to a more competitive approach to resolving differences of opinions often advise against stating one’s reasons. They may see it as a sign of weakness, or say, “I don’t owe him an explanation!” True, he may not owe it to the other person, but he may owe it to himself. As laid out in Bridges to Consensus, Chapter 6:
Understanding the power of reasons gives us the confidence to offer them to others. Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion describes a set of experiments in which a researcher sent assistants out to try different scripts for getting people to let them cut ahead in lines of people waiting to make photocopies. Using the script, “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” the assistant was allowed to skip ahead 60% of the time. But using the script, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” the assistant was allowed to go ahead 94% of the time. Even more amazingly, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies,” worked almost as well as “because I’m in a rush,” 93% of the time, even though the “reason” given simply stated the obvious. Apparently, the word “because” followed by almost any other words, triggers a favorable response, at least when the issue is relatively minor.
Cialdini tells us the human mind dislikes arbitrariness. Reasons are powerful, and conversely, concealing them can hurt you. If you don’t supply reasons for your requests, the other person will imagine some. Your actual reason or interest is rarely as bad as what they imagine and react to. It may even be quite benign.
Once I declined a neighbor’s offer of a bumper sticker for a candidate we both planned to vote for, saying, “I don’t do bumper stickers.” Sometime later, another neighbor told me he had heard I was a member of the candidate’s party but that I didn’t want anyone to know it. He was wrong on both counts. I considered myself independent, but was open about my plans to vote for the candidate in question. My reason for declining bumper stickers was that I didn’t like removing them after an election. In retrospect, I would rather have explained this reason, and been thought lazy, than to be judged as afraid to express my opinion.
Of course you should be prudent. Of course you should think through the way you phrase a reason or explanation. And of course there are times when explaining certain interests can backfire on you. If you want a volunteer to switch from greeter to set-up crew on Sundays because he has a heavy accent visitors can’t understand, that might be a good one to keep to yourself, if possible. In my experience, however, people who tend to reveal a bit too much achieve better results, across significant numbers of interactions, than those who keep too much hidden.
Do you have a family member or coworker who habitually does something that bothers you? How might you persuade them to consider another way by asking questions? Or how might you persuade them by skipping the complaint and launching straight into an appealing reason to do things your way?
 Mary Loftus, “Smooth Encounters: How to Frame Criticism,” Psychology Today, March/April 2013, p. 65
 Robert Cialdini (Quill, William Morrow, 1995).