June 13, 2024
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Verbal Assertiveness: Inviting More Criticism Using the Negative Inquiry Skill

Part IV

We’ve covered how to handle pointless and warranted criticisms. Let us now take the bold step of asking for more criticism.

Wait! What? Why would we want to seek more criticism?

For these good reasons: to engage our curiosity, to seek understanding and clarity and to encourage loved ones to be assertive—asking for what they want instead of resorting to ineffective, manipulative tactics like criticism.

We often fall into the trap of believing that everyone sees the world as we do. Our definitions of simple words can be so varied as to cause needless conflict. Rabbi Aryeh Pamensky has an effective exercise where he asks couples to individually write down what specific words, such as “late,” “expensive dinner,” etc., mean to each spouse and then he asks the couple to share their perspectives.

It is a fantastic way to help couples avoid misunderstandings and foster communication.

If we were to survey several people we know, each person would give a different definition of the word “late.” One person might define late as a second after the time agreed on, another might say after five to 10 minutes, yet another may comment that “it depends on who I am meeting and for what.” We would probably make an effort to be on time if meeting with the friend that has the first perspective, not stress out with the friend with the second perspective, and be more specific with the third.

One of the side benefits of learning about and practicing assertive behavior is that people close to us pick up the skills and start using them too. We can actively assist others by asking questions that appear to invite more criticism but really encourage another to assertively make requests. This fosters a closer connection because true connection requires healthy interaction.

Manuel J. Smith, Phd, author of “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty,” calls this skill “Negative Inquiry.” We respond to criticism with the verbal formula of “I don’t understand. What about is?” Sometimes it helps to mirror back what you hear in order to ensure you understand someone’s perspective. Let us demonstrate with the following dialogue. HUSBAND: I’m heading out, sweetie. Goodbye!

WIFE: There you go again, running out as quickly as you can!

HUSBAND: (Looks at the door, then looks at his wife) It sounds like something is bothering you. I want to listen to what you want to tell me, but right now I need to go. Can we talk when I come back?

WIFE: Don’t let me hold you up, go, go!

HUSBAND: Can we talk when I return? (BROKEN RECORD) WIFE:I don’t know if I’ll feel like talking then.

HUSBAND: OK, I’ll ask you again when I return. (BROKEN RECORD) See you soon. [He returns and resumes where they left off]

HUSBAND: Do you feel up to talking right now? (BROKEN RECORD) WIFE: I’m not sure.

HUSBAND: How about we start and see how far we get? (BROKEN RECORD) WIFE: OK.

HUSBAND: Before I left, you said that I was running out as quickly as I could. I don’t understand. What about my leaving quickly bothers you? (NEGATIVE INQUIRY) WIFE: Well, it is always the same thing, “I’m heading out, bye, sweetie.”

HUSBAND: I still don’t understand. What about my standard goodbye bothers you? (NEGATIVE INQUIRY)

WIFE: You never ask me if I need anything before you go. You just rush out before I can even say anything.

HUSBAND: It still isn’t clear to me. What about my leaving without asking you if you need anything bothers you? (NEGATIVE INQUIRY)

WIFE: Are you purposely being obtuse? You rush out every evening leaving me with two little ones and millions of things to do.

HUSBAND: Sometimes I can be obtuse. (NEGATIVE ASSERTION) I am really just trying to understand. You are saying that it bothers you that I don’t ask you if you need any help before leaving the house. Is that correct? (MIRRORING)

WIFE: Yes! I want you to help out. It is so hard getting anything done with a baby and a toddler. You try doing your job while taking care of them. Good luck!

HUSBAND: You want me to help you out more. (MIRRORING) What do you want help with specifically before I leave each evening?

WIFE: I want you to hold the baby because she is fussiest then and also keep the toddler occupied. I want to be able to clean up the table and do the dishes…[Pauses] Also, I want you to start the bedtime routine by getting everyone into pajamas and then reading a book to the oldest. HUSBAND: [Pauses to consider] I can do that. I want to leave on time each evening, so I want to help from 5:45pm to 6:15pm. That would mean we would need to eat dinner a little earlier. Would that work for you?

WIFE: I think I can start dinner a bit earlier. Yes, let us try that. Thank you! HUSBAND: Do you still want me to ask if you need help before I leave? WIFE: Yes.

HUSBAND: That might be confusing for me. When I am ready to go, I cannot sincerely ask you if you need help.

WIFE: I don’t understand. What about asking me is confusing? (NEGATIVE INQUIRY) HUSBAND: I don’t want to set an expectation I can’t deliver on. I don’t have time to help if I am already at the door.

WIFE: I see. How about you ask me 10-15 minutes before you intend to leave? I will keep my requests to things that take about 10 minutes. Does that work?

HUSBAND: Yes, I can do that. It will take some time for us to settle into the new routine but I am glad we cleared the air.

WIFE: Me too! Thank you. I appreciate that you handled my frustrations so well.

The husband in this dialogue demonstrates the same assertive behaviors we covered in the last column. He decides for himself what his thoughts are regarding his behaviors, thoughts and actions. He knows that, as an imperfect human, he can accept anything “negative” about himself. Since he is able to stay calm and not get sidetracked by criticisms or strong emotions from his wife, he is able to keep them on a path to understanding and resolution rather than hurtful bickering.

There are two new assertive ideas that we introduce in this dialogue:

1. The husband knows that he can cope with anyone regardless of their goodwill. His wife is quite upset as he is leaving and is probably still upset when he returns. This does not prevent him from seeking her out and coping effectively.

2. The husband knows that it is OK to say, “I don’t understand.” He realizes that he is different from his wife and he cannot read her mind.

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin recommends that couples use the Imago method of also asking “Is there more?” after mirroring
what has been heard. The question helps others to look within to determine what else they might want to say in order to be fully heard and understood. A friend called this the “Send and Receive” technique when we were discussing Negative Inquiry—proving that this concept has become mainstream.

Whatever technique or verbal formula you decide to utilize, remember to keep your intention positive and loving by engaging your curiosity and activating your desire to understand. This advice is especially important with children as they are more sensitive to the slightest of facial expressions and emotional cues.

The phrase, “I don’t understand. What about is,” can turn into a hurtful weapon if expressed sarcastically, resulting in bitter fighting. Our readers will recall from previous columns that these assertive skills require practice to ensure that we maintain a calm voice and do not fall into the criticism trap of defending, denying or counter-criticizing.

May Hashem bless you to use these skills to raise yourself and others up and to bring more of

His Divine Presence into our world.


Zita Weinstein resides in New Jersey with her husband and kids. She is passionate about education and spiritual growth. Additional details on these assertive skills and ideas can be found in the two books, “Rav Noach Weinberg: Torah Revolutionary” by Yonoson Rosenblum and “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” by Manuel J. Smith, Phd. For effective marriage communication practices, please go to Rabbi Aryeh Pamensky’s website http://www.happywife.com/ and Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin’s website https://themarriagerestorationproject.com.

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