5 ways to be more patient and less critical

Posted on June 5th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

I often coach people who wish they could be more assertive. However, I also sometimes coach people who are too assertive: they are good at spotting errors and quick to point them out. As a result, they may come across as impatient and overly critical about other people’s mistakes.

If you have been told (or suspect) that you are someone who is a bit impatient and overly critical, here’s some advice:

1. Take a pause

Studies have shown that it is possible to reduce feelings of irritation and anger. Many of these psychological interventions focus on changing how people think about situations; others involve getting people to relax their bodies so that they feel less physically tense. However, most of these interventions have in common that it requires people to pause for long enough to think differently about their situations.

So, the very first tip (which you have probably heard before) is to take a pause whenever you feel impatient or annoyed by something that’s happening to you. Perhaps take three slow, deep breaths. Even just take one deep breath. Try counting to three. Or label how you are feeling by saying inside your mind “I am experiencing the feeling of…” and then insert “irritation”, “anger”, “annoyance” or whatever else it is you are feeling.

Take a pause for just a few seconds and you help to interrupt your automatic reactions. Then you can try to add in some other tip, like one of the other tips below.

2. Choose your battles

Think carefully about which mistakes or failings you should speak up about. There’s a saying about choosing your battles in order to win the war – and that’s good advice here.

What’s your major career goal? Perhaps you want to get promoted. Or maybe you just want a pay rise. Bear in mind this big career goal is your equivalent of winning the war. But constantly picking little battles – by pointing out every error or issue you spot around you – could annoy the people around you so much that they just cannot bear to work with you any longer. And that could lose you the war – they may actively look for ways to prevent you from getting that promotion or whatever else you want.

So, aim to tone down your level of criticism. When you spot things that have gone – or could go – wrong, think about staying silent about at least some of them. Let the littler issues go. And focus your energies only on the bigger issues, instead.

3. Consider how you attribute things

When we make mistakes, we often attribute it to external circumstances rather than how we are. But when someone else makes the same mistake, we are more likely to attribute it to their disposition – their fundamental personality. For example, when I miss a deadline, I might blame it on my circumstances and think “oh, that’s because I’ve had so much work to deal with”. But when someone else misses a deadline, I’m more likely to blame it on how they are – “oh, she’s lazy” or “he’s incompetent”.

So, remember that you may be attributing other people’s errors to their disposition rather than circumstances. When you remind yourself that their mistakes may actually be down to external circumstances rather than the way they are, you are likely to be less annoyed by them.

4. Assume positive (or at least neutral) intent

Sometimes, we can get annoyed by other people’s actions because we think that they have deliberately set out to behave in a negative fashion. For instance, we may think that they are inherently nasty or manipulative. Or we believe them to be sexist, racist, or otherwise looking down on us.

Often, their behaviour might be a little aggravating. But it is our belief about their negative intentions that really turns it into something massively more annoying.

The thing is, our beliefs can often be wrong. People who are impatient or easily annoyed often assume intentions that are more negative than they actually might be.

So, be careful when you think that someone was “out to get you” or that someone was deliberately trying to harrass you. Remind yourself that you can’t read minds – and that you cannot know for certain what was behind their actions. Give them the benefit of the doubt and you may help yourself to let things go a little more easily.

5. Make more supportive comments

This final tip is not about changing your reaction to things. Instead, this is about changing the extent to which colleagues or other people in your life see you as impatient or overly critical.

Speaking up frequently about the mistakes or problems you see can gain you a reputation as someone who is impatient and critical. But you can help to correct people’s perceptions about you by speaking up a bit more often in order to support your colleagues.

Management researcher Ethan Burris at the University of Texas at Austin found that employees helped themselves to be perceived more positively when they spoke up in ways that supported either the organisation or existing ways of doing things. If you want to reduce your reputation as someone who is impatient or critical, try to:

  • Speak up occasionally to stand up for your organisation – for example when others criticise it.
  • Speak up in order to demonstrate your approval for current policies, procedures, or systems.
  • Voice your support for the ways that things are currently done within your team or organisation.

That doesn’t mean that you have to go from being somewhat critical to being over-the-top supportive of the organisation. But just making the occasional, extra comment in support of your organisation and how things are could make a real difference in terms of how you are perceived.

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