destructive_criticism1.jpgDale Carnegie said that to win friends and influence people, one should avoid finding fault, and praise. If some critique might be useful, it should be put forth in a way that can be easily listened to, by avoiding blame and surrounding it with real praise.

There are times when I get a strong urge to burst balloons. Some people like to point out the inane and damaging “logic” that fundamentalist Christians and Muslims use. We get this strong urge to burst their balloon. For their own good.

People don’t appreciate attempts at having their bubbles burst. It can feel like an attack. Invasive. Abusive, even.

And it’s much easier to be critical face to face. In print, people tend to follow this principle:

fukwad-sm1.jpgModern Thinker talks about the difference between “two general theories of truth, called the correspondence theory and the coherence theory.”

The correspondence theory is also called realism and is the theory used by science : it assumes that an object is what it appears to be, that is, an object is made of matter. In this theory, objects are independent of the observer who is looking at them, so they are not mental creations.

The coherence theory assumes that objects are not self-evident – their existence has to be explained. This theory is rather like a jigsaw puzzle ; every bit of explanation has to be mutually compatible with all other bits, so that everything fits together coherently. Any contradiction indicates a defect in the theory. The thinker searches for patterns in ideas over the whole range of his interests. For example, the patterns of power that he detects in forms of religion need to be compatible with patterns of power in other domains, such as social relationships. Hence the coherence theory is the hallmark of system thinking. System thinking is pattern thinking. It is the theory that I espouse.

He then goes on to mention:

The coherence theory presents a major problem to analysis since contradictions are not allowed. In the early years of my psycho-analysis I had managed a few times to construct an apparently coherent psychology that embraced all my current ideas. Then a new psychological fact would present itself to me, one that just could not be fitted into my framework. So my intellectually-neat theory would collapse in ruins, leaving me lethargic, depressed and discouraged for some time afterwards.

So bursting his own bubble, with his own effort, was a real drag. No wonder that people get really pissed off, and might even tell you to “go to hell”, if you seem critical.

insanity.jpgBut not all criticism gets this response. The theory of shadow issues says that we only get really pissed off if the criticism has some nugget of truth in it. Some nugget that we don’t want to own. Otherwise the criticism seems so off base as to be irrelevent, and we aren’t so touched, emotionally.

Most of us don’t receive criticism well, but sometimes we don’t receive it at all. I’ve been intimate with a few people who seemed completely incapable of introspection. This may be difficult to imagine, but they were incapable of holding a negative opinion about their self – it was too painful and caused too much cognitive dissonance, and so it never happened. If some critical remark hit a bit close to home, it would be fended off. One usual way would be to deflect it with something like “never mind about me, you are even worse”. Ya, my shit stinks. Ok, yes, it does. And when can the topic get back to you? Never. Never is when. And have a little bit of stinky rage for your efforts. Most of us are more normal, and only sometimes react with anger to well meaning public or private criticism – I mention the extreme case just to highlight how extreme we can be. All of us.

Communicating is a two way street, but sometimes you bump up into off ramps and detours and one way lanes, and there is just nothing you can do.

Update: A few days ago I came across a quote by a pscychiatrist regarding the difficulties of giving critisism, especially when denial may be involved. He ended his article by saying that he has discovered that it is a waste of energy to try to battle against the impenetrable defences of religious thinking – religious thinking is stronger and will win.

On a more encouraging note, I saw the movie “The Queen” today. The plot centered around the Royal Family’s unemotional response to Princess Diana’s death, and Tony Blair’s attempts to encourage the queen to be more vocal, and so quell a rising negative sentiment to the Crown. At the end of the movie, Blair is the epitome of tact and diplomacy, and makes a genuine connection with the previously incalcitrant Queen Elizabeth. I marveled at the skill and discipline required. I take too much delight in the thrust and parry of good verbal joust to pay enough attention to effective diplomacy.

It does seem that there are times when even the most skillful and well meant communication will have no effect on tough defences of denial. Anyone who has argued with fundamentalists will soon see this.

I’m also becoming curious as to the biological underpinnings of denial. The personality disorders, such as histrionic, narcissistic, and borderline, all involve some emotional disregulation and denial. Lithium increases the thickness of grey matter in one part of the brain that can use reason to regulate emotional responses. Genetics have influence on peoples tendencies to go allong with what authorities dictate, which also means swallowing conflicting beliefs, which requires more denial than being an individualist does. Nature and nurture both play a part.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, is true often enough to hold meaning. People with fundamentalist parents, or parents who are extra controlling or histrionic, are likely to have a greater propensity to be in denial – of course not knowing it – otherwise it wouldn’t be denial.

Sad as failures to communicate can be, I’ve come away with a few rules of thumb. When one person starts to be abusive with speech and wishes ill will through curses, such as “go to hell”, or “I hate you”, or “you are shameless”, then there is nothing to do but retreat. When a person is so invisible to themself to not even notice the need to hold values of at least trying to be helpful, all hope is lost.

My attempts at being helpful can backfire. I can come across as being hurtful and betraying the element of respect that makes up the bonds of connection. However confused my attempts are, the fact that I try to be helpful makes a fundamental qualitative difference.

There are people who refuse to see the profound difference between retributive hurtful anger and well intentioned folly that causes pain, and will meet out one for the other.