Some years ago, a priest sent me occasional criticism of something I’d written. He tended to pick at small points.
We’d had dinner a couple of times and were friendly, and I eventually responded that I’d find it easier to hear his criticism if he’d ever offer something besides criticism. I was hoping for some relief from the sniping. He stopped correcting me, though he never did say anything supportive. He meant well, but he hadn’t thought about the total effect his messages had on the poor guy at the other end.
Most people don’t see one crucial thing about the way they talk about others. If they think about what they’re saying (and not enough people do), they think about their speech as discrete acts. They said one thing an hour ago, another thing now and will say something else later.
That’s true especially when someone criticizes them for saying something uncharitable or unkind. They defend the single statement for which they’re being criticized.
But the important thing in the way we speak about others isn’t the single statement, it’s the pattern. It’s our practice over time. It’s the total effect of our words on those to whom we direct them and to those listening in. They feel every word, especially if they’re the target.
Like most such things, we can see this more easily when we’re the victims than the ones speaking unkindly to others. Think of the people, some of them real friends, whose appearance in your Facebook feed means (and only ever means) you’re about to be sniped or picked at. Just once in a while you’d like to see them saying “I liked that” or “Good job.”
Many of us are also the attackers. We suffer from that “someone’s wrong on the internet!” feeling and often know exactly who that someone is. I know that impulse too well — and the joy of charging into battle to strike down the error. It’s addictive. As a practiced offender, I have two suggestions for dealing with it.
First, pray for your target before criticizing. “We would all much better mend our ways,” wrote St. Thomas More in his “Dialogue Concerning Heresies,” “if we were as ready to pray for one another as we are to offer one another reproach and rebuke.”
An engaged Hail Mary would do, or an Our Father and Hail Mary if you’re really eager to jump on your target. You may find — I often do — that you don’t need to criticize. And if you do, you can say what you have to say with sympathy and fellow-feeling in a way that might be heard.
Second, if you still think you need to speak critically to someone, and that you need to keep doing it over time, try to say at least one supportive thing for every two or three critical things. Set a ratio and keep track.
The effort to find something supportive to say will help you become more sympathetic and may help you speak so he or she hears you.
If you see that, you will (assuming you’re right) also see the mistake more clearly, and your criticism will cut more deeply. And (because you’re probably not completely right) you may clarify, deepen and correct your own understanding.
You want to learn to speak more as a friend than as a judge, because most people take criticism from friends better than they do judgments from judges.
David Mills is an OSV columnist who writes from Pennsylvania.