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Ingrid Martine and Rick Maurer - The Un-Game Book Interview

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Monthly Archives: October 2015

Don’t Characterize! Criticize What They Do, Not Who They Are

Un-game Principle: Appreciative relationships are limited by the boundaries of your ability to separate facts from fiction.

Admit it. You’ve heard yourself say: “That’s different“–tone of voice and eyebrows raised with indignation. Maybe you’ve just told a significant other, a son or a spouse, that they’ve been inconsiderate (they broke a mutually-agreed-upon meeting time). They quickly remind you of a time when you left them metaphorically ‘standing in the rain’. Before you can take the next breath, but after you recall the referred-to incident, you assert what inevitably starts a discussion, which leaves both of you unable to get on with what could have been a lovely, productive day.

“That’s different.” Balled fists and quivering lips, you are out of your ‘right’ mind and into your fight, flight, or freeze emotional straight-jacket. Say so long to valid assessments of what’s happening. You are not separating fact from fiction.

What’s behind this? Why are we so likely to discard the very criticism we’ve just lobbed at someone else? “No! That’s different (I’m different). You’re wrong,” we insist. How we paint one another with the brush of our critical words diverges from how we see ourselves…almost always.

Let’s explore.

Pretend it’s your teenage son whom you’ve called ‘inconsiderate,’ and who has predictably told you in an angry, wounded voice that you, too, are ‘inconsiderate.’

Consider the following: None of us can stand being (negatively) characterized by another person. When we say to someone “You’re inconsiderate,” we are characterizing the person; we are not describing facts, that is, what they did or didn’t do (The fact is that your son met you at 3:15 when the agreement was to meet at 3:00. He broke a promise since both of you agreed that you would meet at 3:00.).

A characterization–“You’re inconsiderate” is a story we make up: “This is the way you are. And we want you to change who you are.”

Well, your son, like you and me, bristles at your characterization of him. He can no more change who he is than willfully change his height! We all can only change what we do. And with consistent doing we eventually change who we are…by our own choice and in our own green time.

No wonder we get so upset… and so ineffective with someone else’s characterization of us. A negative characterization attacks our being, the very thing we cannot (but are being told to) change. Of course the knee-jerk reaction is “No I’m not inconsiderate!” And we would be correct in our assertion. We are not another’s characterization of us. We aren’t even our own characterization of ourselves! If we take that breath and get into our ‘right’ mind, and if we think about it, we can probably find some ways in which the ‘inconsiderate’ person has acted with love and caring…and recall some times when we ourselves did not.

A characterization, negative or positive, is not a fact.

We are alike in so many ways, often especially when we see ourselves as most different. I invite you to watch out for insisting “That’s different,” or “I’m different.” It’s a slippery slope as well as an opportunity for personal growth. Which one interests you more?

It’s easy to see that characterizations can hurt. Rather than facts, they are what we unconsciously make a fact or a series of facts mean (In this imaginary scenario, your son arrived 15 minutes after an agreed-upon time. That’s a fact. Now what did you make that fact mean?).

Don’t get me wrong. We can’t help it. We will interpret facts. To be human is to attribute meaning to facts. It makes sense out of a world which otherwise would be chaotic. What we can do to make life easier and more satisfying, however, is to become conscious that we do this rather than think that our interpretation of the facts are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It might make us curious about what happened when someone was late to an appointment with us. It makes possible a conversation between two engaged rather than two well-defended minds who ‘already know everything!’

There’s validity to the statement “Minds are like parachutes. They only work when they’re open.”

“What about those whom you would characterize (there it is again.) as chronic late-comers?” you might wonder. “Aren’t they inconsiderate? Isn’t that a fact?” No, you still have a characterization of them. Characterizations are either grounded (you can provide lots of evidence/facts for making that characterization) or they are ungrounded (using another characterization to ‘prove’ this conversation’s original characterization. For example, “He never keeps his promises ” is an ungrounded assertion and a short step from characterizing him as unreliable. Believe me, he’ll find at least one example of having kept a promise!).

Does that mean you have to suffer the person who is often late? No. Grounded characterizations can be the opening for a conversation which you can no longer put off lest your relationship suffers significant damage.

Here’s a fact: a confrontation will go a lot better when you can speak about two things: (1) the impact of the other’s behavior on you…arriving late…and (2) what you will do to assure that your daily comings and goings are not negatively affected by what the other does and doesn’t do. At least one of you will be in your ‘right’ mind! The chances of handling the other’s defensiveness will be enhanced when you concentrate on the behavior and the impact on you rather than on a shaky characterization. The other will probably still be defensive, but their defensive posturing will lack the intensity called forth by a characterization.

The start of the conversation may go like this.

“Son, it not only makes me anxious (fact) that you’re late so often, I’m also hesitant to coordinate plans with you (fact). We’ve missed the beginning of the play/movie/church/synagogue, conference 3 times in the last month (fact) and I hate feeling hurt and resentful. I hate thinking of you as inconsiderate. I hate feeling disconnected from you, which I do when I’m resentful (all facts). Can we talk about this? (This is an offer or invitation.) With or without you I need to find a way out of my dilemma” (This is an announcement that you will take care of yourself even if a mutually committed-to solution either does not get generated or results in another broken agreement).

You’re off to a good start when you criticize what people do, not who they are. Why not choose to see yourself and the other in all your beautiful, shared humanity –warts as well as wisdom? In ways that count, we’re not so different after all. I find that comforting. How about you?

Photo Credit: By State Library of New South Wales collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ingrid Martine, MA, PCC, Coach and author of The Un-Game , Four-Play to Business as Unusual, a show, not tell tool for coaches, managers, and “will do” teams, works with organizations and individuals to empower them to move their lives from a 7 to 10 at work, home, and play.  For her FREE report, “Reap the Harvest of a Quiet Mind:  Empower Self, Empower Others”, or “Management Training for Business as Unusual”, visit:, or connect with Ingrid at: and