(OPRAH.com) -- I saw Michael Bernard Beckwith perform a re-commitment ceremony for a married couple a few years back and it blew me away. He looked at the husband and said, "Your job is to be her biggest fan and her greatest critic for the purpose of her spiritual development." He then turned to the wife and said the same thing to her about him.
As simple of a concept as this was for me to understand, I'd never heard anyone say it quite like that before. As what he said registered with me, I was moved deeply and began to cry. I realized that so often I'd struggled with what felt like my conflicting desires to share my love and appreciation with my wife Michelle, and also to let her know when something didn't work for me or when I thought she was "off" in certain aspects of her life.
I noticed that I was usually "hot or cold" about this. I was either completely focused on appreciating her or completely focused on being critical of her, or withholding my feedback to avoid hurting her feelings.
Hearing Michael say this, however, made me realize that both of these things --appreciation and feedback -- are essential, not only for the health of a relationship, but also for the personal growth and development of each person.
These two important things, being a fan and a critic, are often seen as opposites when viewed from an adolescent perspective. But upon deeper reflection, it becomes clear that they're intricately connected and fundamentally important for the success of not only a marriage, but any important relationship for which we want a genuine sense of trust, connection and authenticity.
Our ability, or often inability, to express our genuine appreciation for someone else is directly related to how safe or comfortable we feel giving critical feedback to that same person. In other words, the more open we are to giving and receiving honest (and sometimes critical) feedback in a particular relationship, the more capacity we have to express and experience genuine appreciation with that person.
And when we don't feel safe or comfortable giving someone honest feedback, or often just aren't willing, it actually diminishes our ability to acknowledge them in a real way. Ultimately, it diminishes our relationship with them in general. Our goal is to be a real fan and a conscious critic of the important people in our life.
What it means to be a real fan
Being a real fan of someone means that we focus on what we appreciate about them. It means we look for the good in them and are willing to let them know these things in a loving and generous way. It's essential that we acknowledge them without agenda, or because we want something in return.
Acknowledgments with an agenda are manipulations, not acts of true appreciation. Being a real fan of someone else is about celebrating them, recognizing their value, believing in them and reminding them of their greatness.
What it means to be a conscious critic
Being a conscious critic of someone else means that we're willing to say things that might be scary or may even potentially hurt their feelings, but we kindly do so anyway because we're interested in having a relationship with true depth, trust and authenticity. Being a conscious critic is not about being critical or judgmental, which can be hurtful and harmful to others and to us, but about being able to share things that get in between ourselves and other people.
It's also about giving them feedback that can help them be the best possible version of themselves. There is a slippery slope for many of us on either side of this equation. However, think of the most meaningful and important relationships you've ever had in your life. You'll notice that having the freedom to give and receive critical feedback in a productive, positive and kind way is almost always an essential part of that relationship.
Here are a few things you can think about and practice to become a real fan and a conscious critic of the important people in your life:
Use your relationship GPS: Many of us have GPS navigation in our cars or on our phones to keep us from getting lost. However, whenever we find ourselves lost in our relationships or lost in our ability to appreciate people around us, we can use "Acknowledgment GPS." In this case, GPS stands for "genuine, personal and specific."
Whenever we acknowledge someone, we want it to be genuine, to come from our heart and mean what we say. We also want it to be personal, to appreciate something about them and leave them feeling appreciated. Lastly, we want it to be specific, to identify a specific quality they have, or something that they've done, and describe how it specifically impacts us or makes our life better.
Clear your "withholds": A withhold is a hurt or resentment you've been holding onto regarding another person, yet you haven't shared it with them. This can happen with anyone in your life -- a spouse, friend, family member or co-worker.
To clear your withhold, one person says to the other person, "There's something I've withheld from you." The other person responds by saying, "Okay, would you like to tell me?" Then the first person expresses their "withhold" with as much honesty, vulnerability and responsibility as possible (i.e. using "I" statements, owning their feelings, etc.). The other person's job is to listen with as much openness as possible, not to react and to say "thank you" when the first person is done.
It's best to do this back and forth until both people have shared all of their withholds with each other. When you're done, one or both of you may want to talk about some of the things that were said, but that isn't always necessary. This is not about debate or someone being right or wrong. This is about being able to share how you're feeling and releasing it, as well as giving the other person some important feedback in the process.
Ask for what you want: It's essential that we ask people in our lives for the specific kind of appreciation and feedback that we want from them, and how we like to receive it. The clearer we are about what we want from the people around us, and the more willing we are to find out what they want, the more likely we are to have authentic and mutually beneficial relationships.
I've gotten myself into trouble when I assume to know how people want to be acknowledged or what works for them in terms of receiving feedback. Not everyone is like us, as hard as that is for some of us to realize, so we have to negotiate this personally and specifically in each relationship so that we can honor people's needs, desires and personalities.
Have fun with this and be kind to yourself and others as you engage in this process of being a real fan and a conscious critic. While this is an essential aspect of deepening and enhancing our relationships, it is also something that most of us truly want, even if it may make us a little uncomfortable.
It can be tricky and scary for most of us, so just be aware of this dynamic and have compassion for yourself and those around you.
Mike Robbins is a best-selling author, sought-after motivational keynote speaker and personal growth expert who works with people and groups of all kinds. Robbins is the author of the best-selling books Focus on the Good Stuff and Be Yourself: Everyone Else Is Already Taken. He and his work have been featured on ABC News, in Forbes, Ladies Home Journal, Self and many others.
By Mike Robbins for Oprah.com © 2009 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Subscribe to O, The Oprah Magazine for up to 75% off the newsstand price. That's like getting 18 issues FREE. Subscribe now!
TM & © 2011 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.