April 15, 2001
If I Don't Express
My Anger,
I'll Blow Up

 And Other Myths About
Constructive Criticism
   
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When cleaning out an old desk of my father’s recently, I came across a priceless treasure. It was a letter he wrote to the president of the country club to which he belonged, detailing some personal complaints. Reading it brought back memories of an evening in the summer of 1959 that I’d long forgotten. It also served to remind me of the delicate challenge we face whenever we try to criticize someone constructively, and how we sometimes accomplish more by not speaking our mind.

"Dear Stephen," the letter begins.

"I want to tell you about this incident, not just because it was irritating and embarrassing to me, but more importantly because it points up so graphically a situation I am sure you will want to know about."

Dad explains that he had authorized me to take a female friend to the club for dinner as his guest, and that her parents provided transportation. "They arrived around 6:00 to 6:30. They sat in the grill for over a half-hour without being able to get a waiter to take an order. Blaine tells me that there were waiters standing around, that a couple of times one started to his table with a glass of water, and then went off in another direction.

"I had equipped Blaine with a note authorizing charges to me, and ample cash for tips--plus instruction for generous tipping. . . . Finally he took his girl out to the snack bar at the swimming pool and bought hamburgers."

Dad, as it turns out, is just getting warmed up. My being ignored as a young teenager in the grill was just the tip of the iceberg. He goes on to say he has been frustrated personally with the food service at times. "I have sat in the grill and twiddled my thumbs while waiters gazed at the ceiling--then there is always something wrong with the service, shortage of utensils, errors or incomplete delivery of the order, etc. My last two experiences in entertaining important guests in the main dining room were such that Dottie and I just don’t feel that we can take a chance any more."

Dad ruminates some more about these problems, then ends page one noting, "We are just little folk, but how many free-spending members are in a like frame of mind?"

We come now to page two of his two-page epistle. Dad mentions that the bowling alley manager treated him rudely during a recent visit. Yet he also backpedals. "Dottie just spied on this letter," he confesses, "and criticized--perhaps rightly--my comment at the previous page about ‘not feeling that we can take a chance any more.’ Perhaps that is a little strong. . . . The point is, I often want to entertain the persons who are important to us--you and me and the club--and if I am trying to build up good will for our causes with the persons we must have on our side, I want to impress them with Stephen’s operation."

My father takes pains in the remainder of the letter to affirm Stephen, and to commend him for doing a great job in managing the club. The problem isn’t Stephen’s fault, he stresses; incompetent employees are failing him.

"Unfortunately, you are being let down some--and I know darn well you can’t be at the club 16 hours a day riding herd on the food service. . . . I am sure you know that I am too doggone busy to indulge in the luxury of blowing off this much steam just for the pleasure of complaining. I am concerned about . . . the bums who don’t back you up in the tremendous job you have been doing in building up the Club. I feel that I am a part of this effort, however small, and it hurts me to see hard work and financial investment diluted by disloyal or just plain indifferent or lazy personnel."

Dad adds in some further banter, then concludes his tome with a supportive admonition: "I hope you knock some heads together in your kindly and gentle way."

The Challenge of Criticizing Constructively

I marveled at how well dad had crafted this letter. His language is animated, his grammar excellent, his expression of thought very clear. The pages are impeccably typed, at a level of perfection that probably required several passes and the patience of Job to get right. He undoubtedly spent hours mulling over the content, then laying it down in a beautifully typed document.

I marveled as well at how sensitively he expressed his complaints to the club president. Stephen was a good friend, and dad had performed legal work for him for years. Dad was clearly concerned not to damage their friendship or professional relationship.

It impressed me greatly that, given his close friendship with Stephen, he didn’t simply pick up the phone, call him and ventilate. Our tendency when we’re perturbed is to do exactly that. We want to sound off immediately. We want to get it off our chest, to know we’ve been heard, to get feedback--and we want it all right away. Especially so, when our aggravation has piqued, as it had in dad’s case. What dismayed him most was that my girlfriend’s parents, who were members of a more prestigious club, now had a poor impression of his. The incident surely would reflect badly on him, our family and me.

"There is no way that I can make apology to the girl’s family for the club’s inhospitality," he laments.

Dad had a serious grievance. His temptation to phone Stephen at home that evening and complain must have been strong. Still, he had the good sense to collect himself, then express his concerns diplomatically in a letter.

When we’re frustrated, we always do best to take many deep breaths--to allow ourselves time to calm down and carefully think through our response. When we’re seriously agitated with someone, it’s often a good idea first to express our feelings in writing to them. Confronting them verbally poses the risk that we’ll speak impulsively, then regret we can’t "put the toothpaste back in the tube." Putting our thoughts in writing allows us the leisure to weigh them and revise them, until we’re certain we’ve communicated sensitively. It also allows the other person opportunity to measure their thoughts before responding, decreasing the chance an argument will suddenly spiral out of control.

Much of what made this letter such a wonderful find was the sense that life had served me up with a timeless lesson in how to confront someone constructively. It was inspiring to realize how seriously dad had taken this challenge, and how skillfully he had carried it out.

On Second Thought . . .

But here’s what touched me most. The letter was unmailed. What I had discovered filed away in that desk drawer wasn’t a carbon or photocopy of dad’s letter to Stephen, but the original, folded inside a sealed envelope fully addressed. An uncancelled four-cent stamp neatly pasted on the envelope showed that dad had intended to mail the letter but then changed his mind.

Why did he choose at the last minute not to mail this treatise, over which he had obviously sweated for hours? I can only speculate. He may have feared that, in spite of his best efforts to be conciliatory, Stephen would still feel stung by his criticism and respond defensively. He may have worried that the letter would brand him at the club as a complainer. Or, on further reflection, he may have felt compassion for the service personnel--would Stephen overreact and fire workers who dearly needed the employment?

Whatever his reasons, dad concluded that more would be lost than gained by mailing the letter. I admired the fact that he allowed farsightedness to overrule his very strong urge to ventilate.

I thought immediately of a similar, though much more notable, incident from the life of Lincoln. Following the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Lee’s defeated troops retreated southward, but found the Potomac River swollen from heavy rains and impassable. Lincoln ordered General Meade to attack Lee’s army immediately and force them to surrender. Meade disobeyed Lincoln and called a council of war to deliberate the matter. While he procrastinated, the Potomac receded and Lee escaped.

Lincoln, boiling mad that Meade allowed a golden opportunity to entrap Lee and end the war slip away, wrote an angry letter to his general, expressing severe disappointment and bewilderment. Lincoln, though, never mailed the missive, which was discovered among his papers after he died.

Dale Carnegie cites this incident in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. He revels in this example, and in similar ones from the lives of notable individuals, observing that the most effective leaders are those who rarely criticize their associates--even when they are highly justified doing so. Lincoln, for instance, suffered frequent insubordination from military commanders, yet never condemned them, in spite of public outrage over their actions.

Criticism, Carnegie explains, seldom brings the positive outcome we expect. Denial runs so deep in most people that criticism fails to penetrate its shell. "Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment."*

Carnegie so passionately believes criticism is usually counterproductive, that he devotes the first chapter of his book to expounding the point. He comes close to saying, in the early part of his book, that those of us who wish to be successful leaders or friendship-builders should never criticize those with whom we wish to build ties.

There is, of course, an irony in Carnegie’s position. He makes his point by criticizing. He criticizes those who are critical, criticizes the belief that constructive criticism is usually constructive, and indirectly, at least, criticizes any of us who would disagree with him.

It’s this irony that points out how impractical--and undesirable--it is to adopt an extreme position of never criticizing anyone under any circumstances. There are jobs that require it (what teacher can be effective who never points out to students where they need to grow?), occasions in family life and friendships where it’s needed, and abusive situations where it’s demanded. And we encounter those remarkable, magnanimous people, who not only benefit from our criticism, but even appreciate it (Prov. 17:10, 27:5-6).

Still, Carnegie has his point, which, given his folksy style, is better made by hyperbole when he first introduces it than by musing over exceptions.* I agree with Carnegie at this point: Most of the time, when we believe someone will benefit from our criticism, or imagine we’ll experience catharsis by getting it off our chest, we’re mistaken. Far from helping the other person, our criticism hurts them, and triggers their defenses. They become more entrenched in the position we wish to correct. And catharsis? Forget it. Even if an argument doesn’t ensue, we feel dejected that our criticism didn’t improve things, and wish we’d held our tongue.

The last state is especially likely to be worse than the first when our criticism is (a) unsolicited, (b) given in anger, (c) provided without a healthy dose of humility--where we point out that we also have serious faults and need the Lord’s help just as greatly.

Even when given with substantial humility, we sometimes help someone more by not offering our critique. And even criticism that is solicited sometimes hurts more than edifies.

Jesus on Criticism’s Boomerang Effect

Centuries before Carnegie preached his doctrine of not criticizing, Jesus urged similar constraint in a statement that surely stunned many listeners: "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Mt 7:1 RSV).

The judgment we express to someone else--or merely nurture in our heart--typically flies back in our face like sand thrown into an approaching wind, Jesus says. By criticizing someone, we spur them to look more diligently for our faults, which they will surely find and expose. Jesus certainly implies a deeper principle here, too--that God is about the business of humbling those who seek to humble others.

His command also suggests a vital psychological insight. The fact that we are able to feel intensely critical of someone over a matter so often indicates we’re guilty of a similar offense. It’s precisely because we’re aware from personal experience of how disabling this problem can be that we’re able so quickly to identify it in someone else. Yet we find it far more comfortable to focus on the other’s problem than our own. Projection is what psychologists term it today.

Thus, Jesus continues: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye" (Mt 7:2-5).

It’s beyond any question that Jesus intended the principle of not judging to be pervasive in the Christian life. His language is emphatic--judge not--almost as though he entertains no exceptions. Did he mean there is absolutely, positively never a time when we should criticize anyone? Clearly not, for he implies we’ll sometimes need to address the "speck" in another’s eye. Yet the emphasis in his imagery could not be plainer. We should focus primarily on our own problems, and require a strong burden of proof before approaching anyone else about theirs.

We must conclude from Jesus’ teaching, too, that ventilation purely for its own sake is never justified. The likelihood is great it will be harmful--both to the person we rebuke and to ourselves.

Is Ventilation a Safety Valve?

But aren’t we in danger of damaging our psychological health by not expressing our feelings of anger? Many psychologists believe so. According to ventilationist theories that have pervaded psychological thinking for the past century, we store anger, and unless unleashed, it will grow and intensify, until we explode like Mount Vesuvius.

Carol Tavris debunks this notion in her excellent book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion.* We don’t store anger, Tavris points out, any more than we store positive emotions. Who would claim, for instance, that we’ll explode if we don’t express joy or gratitude? What’s more, expressing anger--far from relieving it--often nurtures it, for by focusing on our angry feelings we intensify them. Expressing our anger, too, frequently sets up a chain of events that worsens the situation which has upset us, leaving us even more aggravated.

Anger is relieved, Tavris insists, not by its being expressed, but by the resolution of the problem that has provoked it.

Imagine, for instance, that a coworker informs you that she overheard your boss tell his secretary you’re going to be fired. You’ve served this company faithfully and diligently for years. Besides, you’ve had a cordial relationship your boss, who recently commended you highly for your work. You’re outraged, not only that he’d think of terminating you, but that he’d be so duplicitous as to imply he’s pleased with your work when he’s actually intending to let you go.

For two weeks your resentment grows, and you barely sleep. Then comes the dreaded invitation to your boss’s office. You sit stunned, as he explains that he intends to--promote you. Later, your coworker admits she must have misunderstood that conversation she overheard.

Now--what happens to your burning anger in that astonishing moment when you learn that you had things completely wrong? Why, it vanishes, of course. Yet if it’s true that we store anger, it must still be there, still needing to be vented in some way. There’s no mistaking, though, that it’s gone--even though you haven’t let it out at all. You have no more sensation of it than you would of physical pain that is suddenly relieved.

Each of us has endless experiences like this, where anger that we’ve never expressed disappears in a moment, once the situation that upset us is resolved to our satisfaction. Reflecting on such episodes should convince us that we’re not endangering our equilibrium by keeping the lid on angry feelings.

Whether expressing our anger relieves it depends upon the results. Sometimes venting does improve things. The person we confront is contrite, and makes a sincere effort to address the problem that has perturbed us. We feel validated for being assertive. Our anger dissolves.

In many other cases we’re severely disappointed with the outcome. The person we confront is defensive. Nothing improves. We’re frustrated with ourselves for caving in to the urge to ventilate. Expressing our anger has magnified it.

The most redemptive thing we can do when we feel compelled to confront someone with whom we’re angry is to consider as honestly as we can what the results are likely to be. Are we confident that speaking our mind will help heal the situation? Then we should do so. If we’re less than certain about the outcome, we should hold our peace.

Different Levels of Assertiveness

Even if we realize that confronting someone may do more harm than good, we may still feel compelled to do so in order to preserve our integrity. Holding back our criticism when someone deserves it is cowardly, we assume, and sends the wrong message. We need to be frank to stay properly assertive.

Yet a vital part of being assertive is owning our own life. We don’t fully own our life if our well-being depends upon how others think about us or respond to us. If I feel it necessary to tell someone off in order to save my pride, I’m letting that person have too much control over my life. My happiness is hinging too greatly on his needing to know I can stand up for myself, and upon my needing to affect him in a certain way. It’s a higher form of assertiveness in this case to hold my tongue, especially if I know that speaking my mind is likely to undermine things further.

So often, too, the person we want to criticize is already well aware we’re upset with them, and knows exactly what we want to say. They are braced for a confrontation, and ready with their best defense. The fact that we choose not to confront them may leave them surprised and grateful enough that they drop their defenses, and in humility take steps on their own initiative to address the problem that has angered us.

Tom Wolfe has observed that effective writing results more from what writers leave out than from what they include. In the same way, we sometimes have greater influence on someone through what we don’t say than through what we do. We are more effectively assertive in these cases by holding our peace.

I’m not suggesting that we should use silence as a weapon. If our motive in not confronting someone is to hurt them through our silence, then we’re still allowing them to control our feelings too greatly. If we know that confronting someone is not likely to produce the results we want, then our goal should be to forgive this person. By letting go of animosity toward them rather than ventilating it, we’re not only acting graciously toward them, but doing ourselves an enormous favor as well--for we’re removing any possibility that this person’s action will continue to frustrate us. Indeed, forgiveness is the most supremely assertive step we can take.

I don’t mean to downplay the challenge often involved in achieving genuine forgiveness. Yet it helps to know that by offering someone forgiveness we’re not demonstrating weakness, but extraordinary character strength.

It helps, too, to know that the anger we’re releasing will not remain secretly buried in some deep recess of our psyche, and come back later to haunt us or damage our life. At worst, we may feel a little embarrassed--that friends may think we’re off our rocker for having let go of anger so successfully.

Or, that someone years from now may find and read that spirited letter we wrote and revised so carefully, then buried forever in our desk drawer.

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