Can you remember the last time your partner criticized you for something, or at any time for that matter? How did it make you feel? And perhaps more importantly, how did you find yourself reacting to the situation?
Did you become upset, insecure, and defensive and argumentative in response to a partner criticizing in a relationship, and then start trying to refute their criticism by denying, explaining, excusing or justifying yourself, your choices or your behavior, all in hopes of proving them wrong?
But have you ever stopped to consider what kind of an undesirable situation taking this approach puts you in? Have you considered that by protesting and refuting their criticism, it places you in a position where you’re now answering to them, and now it’s completely up to them whether or not they accept your counter-arguments?
But who has the power here? Is it you or is it them? Are you now nothing but a worm squirming on their hook?
If you want to be a powerful communicator, it’s wise to realize that every time we take the defensive role in an interaction, we’re putting ourselves in the weaker position. We’re giving our power to our partner, and now they have the control over the outcome of the situation. But you don’t want this, do you?
So what’s a better approach for how to deal with criticism, instead of defending ourselves and arguing our position, hoping to change our partner’s mind, all the while sacrificing our power to them?
In answering that, let me ask you this: When your partner criticizes you, what’s the reason you have the urge to defend yourself?
Is it because it makes you insecure and you want to relieve yourself of that feeling?
Is it because it makes you uncomfortable to have them think ill of you and you want to prove them wrong to regain their approval?
Is it because it injures your pride to have your perceived faults pointed out and thrown under the spotlight and you want to save face?
But what does all this boil down to? Isn’t the root cause of our desire to defend and explain ourselves when our partner criticizes us, our investment in their opinion of us?
Thus, the real secret for how to deal with criticism in a relationship without losing your cool is to foster an indifference to their opinion of you.
When you truly don’t care what they think of you, when they criticize you, it no longer stirs or arouses any emotion in you. Then you no longer have the desire to defend yourself and prove them wrong, which usually just leads to a heated argument where you’re slotted in the losing role.
But what do you say? How do you demonstrate that you don’t care what they think, so you can diffuse the situation and prevent them from exercising power over you?
Before we get to that, let me ask you this: How important is it to you to become the best version of yourself? And how important is it to you that you become aware of your current faults or weaknesses so that you can correct them, thus improving yourself and your ability to relate with your partner more effectively?
If you place a value on true self improvement — continually developing your character and improving upon your personality — isn’t criticism actually a beneficial thing sometimes? After all, can’t our partners sometimes see us for who we truly are when we ourselves are blind to it?
Their criticisms can sometimes actually make us aware of our current faults and shortcomings if we choose to listen to them, instead of becoming defensive and argumentative.
Thus, the very best way to deal with criticism is to first listen to it with an open mind, then compare their criticism with your current awareness of yourself to see if what they’re saying is true or false.
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If it’s true or you just don’t know until you investigate further, the best response is to calmly say, “You might be right.”
A lot of the time when people criticize us, they’re expecting us to start an argument with them. They’re expecting us to defend ourselves. In fact, many times they actually want us to get upset and get into an argument so they can gloat over us for our futile attempts to protest whereby they become the person who has the power to accept or reject us and our arguments.
Let’s be honest: some people get off on exercising their power over others and having them squabble at their feet. But when you calmly say, “You might be right,” what can they say to that?
It’s like you take the logs right out of the fire. It can no longer burn. The flame is extinguished.
Taking this approach allows you to keep your power for yourself. Instead of answering to them and trying to prove them wrong, which gives them your power, you remain rooted firmly in yourself.
Then, if you’re sincere about improving yourself, ask yourself some questions later:
- Was what they said of me true?
- Did they reveal a current fault or weakness in my character or personality that I wasn’t aware of, but needs to be corrected to become a better, more influential person?
- Criticism can sometimes be instrumental in improving our self-awareness, and isn’t self-awareness usually the first step to change?
- After all, how can we change something about ourselves if we don’t know that we’re doing it, except by fluke?
But how about when your partner criticizes you and you know they’re wrong? What then? Should you argue?
If they criticize you and you know for sure that what they’re saying about you isn’t true, the best way to handle that situation is to calmly say, “Maybe.” Give a short pause and perhaps a shrug, then add, “Maybe not.”
Again, what can they say to that? You haven’t given them any fuel to fan the flame. You’re not arguing with them. You’re not taking the bait and falling into the trap they’ve set for you to get you under their power and answer to them.
Simple, but powerful.
Responding to criticism in these prescribed manners will instantly demonstrate that you exercise self-control. And people who exercise self-control rarely if ever find themselves under the power of others, answering to them.
So I encourage you to memorize these two phrases, and use them the next time your partner criticizes you:
- If you don’t know whether or not what they’re saying is true of you, just say,“You might be right.” Then think about it later.
- And if you know for certain that what they’re saying of you is false, simply say, “Maybe. maybe not.”
If you’ve responded to your partner criticizing you in a relationship in the past by defending yourself and putting your best argument forward, only to get into a heated argument where nothing but frustration and resentment are the result, you might be surprised at how your partner reacts to you.
You might be surprised not only at how it diffuses any arguments and allows you to keep your power for yourself, but it actually makes your partner respect you more, because they will sense that you answer to no one. You keep your power for you and you alone.
How we use criticism to protect ourselves — even from good relationships
“I always felt like I wasn’t complete,” said Tamara in our first session:
“I was looking for a boyfriend and then for a husband, and then once I got married, I thought I’d feel better when I had children. But nothing has really done what I thought it would do. I still feel anxious a lot, and now I worry that something will happen to my husband and my kids. So I don’t know, but I think that being married and having kids has made me feel worse than I did before.”
Vulnerability has been defined as the fear of being open to emotional or physical exposure or attack, but it actually seems to me to be the fear of hurting or being hurt through loneliness, anxiety, loss, emptiness, and other normal but painful emotions. And vulnerability comes in many forms. You might be concerned about being shamed when you make your next presentation, or you might be worried that a good friend is talking about you behind your back. Or you might be afraid of going to a social gathering and feeling silly or unattractive or like you don’t belong.
Many of us think that when we have a special someone, that person will help mediate those feelings. We’ll have someone to come home to at night, someone who will keep us company at social activities, and someone to talk to when we’re lonely or feeling dumb.
So it often comes as a surprise to realize that simply being in a relationship can make you feel vulnerable!
How does this happen? And what can you do about it?
One reason that relationships make us feel vulnerable is that we come to depend on our partners, and that dependency can leave us feeling unprotected and unsafe. In order to protect ourselves, we may distance ourselves from the person we love, or we might start to find things that we don’t like about them.
That’s what happened with Eva and Art, a couple who came to see me to get help with their marriage. “She criticizes me all the time,” Art said. “That’s not true,” Eva replied. “And besides, you’re always criticizing me.”
I told them that I imagined they must both be feeling pretty vulnerable in the relationship, and they both nodded in agreement. I explained that criticism can be a way of protecting yourself when you feel vulnerable, but that it also has a tendency to backfire:
“It becomes a vicious cycle: I push you away by criticizing you, and I also use that criticism to tell myself that I don’t really care about you, because I don’t like this or that about you. But even though it’s not really true, I also convince you that I don’t like you or don’t care about you.”
“And then you criticize me in an attempt to retaliate, to make yourself feel better, and also to tell yourself, and me, that you don’t like me either. And before too long, you’re both too busy attacking each other and defending yourselves to remember what you actually do like about each other, and why you don’t want the relationship to fall apart.”
Even though what I said made complete sense to both Eva and Art, they found that they couldn’t stop attacking each other. No matter what I said or suggested, they ended each session like two small kids who kept saying that the other one started it! You know the argument. It goes like this: “Well, you said it first.” “No, I didn’t, you started it,” and on and on without ever getting resolved.
The problem with vulnerability, says one writer on the Farnum Street blog, is that “Being vulnerable is not a choice. It’s a reality of living. What we do with that vulnerability can either open doors to a deeper connection or throw up walls that stifle growth and fulfillment.”
In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen say that criticism can damage our ability to get things done, whether in a relationship or in a business situation.
In a relationship, constant criticism can interfere with loving and caring feelings. The problem is, criticism adds to our sense of vulnerability and most of us aren’t willing to take the first step to ending the criticism merry-go-round.
Yet in many instances, when there is honest affection and an underlying positive connection between two people, I have found that when partners start looking for positive things to say about one another – things that they genuinely do like and admire – the criticism starts to decrease.
It might surprise you to know that there’s an actual criticism to praise ratio that has been found to be associated with both successful business and personal relationships. According to a study reported in the Harvard Business Review, the highest-performing teams had an average ratio of almost six positive comments for every negative one, while the lowest-performing teams had an average of three negative comments for every positive one.
Relationship guru John Gottman found a very similar ratio predicted whether a married couple would stay together or get divorced. His research suggested that the optimal ratio for marriage is five positive comments for every negative one. The ratio for couples who didn’t stay together was closer to one positive comment for every negative one.
So here’s the thing: if you want your relationship to work, you have to allow yourself some level of vulnerability. And that probably means letting up on your negative comments toward your partner. I often suggest to couples that they not talk about what they’re doing, but simply try to do it for a few days. It’s very important not to count the ratio of positive to negative comments that your partner makes to you during this time. In the initial phase, you’re the one you have to pay attention to. After a few days, or even a week, you can check-in and see if your partner has noticed anything. If not, you might need to dig a little deeper into your well of positivity; or you might ask yourself what’s going on with your partner that they’re not taking in your good words.
So if you’re feeling critical of your partner, before you decide the relationship isn’t going to work, try changing what you say. Shifting the positive to negative ratio is only a small step in making a relationship work better, but sometimes small changes make a huge difference!
Important note: No one has the right to hurt you. If you are in a relationship with a partner who hurts you either physically or emotionally, no matter what your partner tells you, you are not at fault; it’s also important to know that you can get help. One organization in the U.S. is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which you can reach through this link or through the phone numbers 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. They can also help you find someone in your area who will help.
Names and identifying information were changed in this post to protect privacy.
Please note: I can’t respond to individual requests for advice about relationships. Please check the Psychology Today Therapy Directory in your area to find someone who you can talk to about your relationship concerns. Thanks!
Chris Wright is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. He sees clients in the Washington, D.C. area and has telephone clients from all over the world. He also has over 35 years of experience as a trainer and workshop leader in human and organizational development across the U.S. and Canada. Chris was founder and director of the Human Relations Institute in Houston, Texas. He was also the Director of PAIRS International — training psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists in couple’s skills programs. As an innovator in the field, he has developed a unique blend of tools that increase the effectiveness in relationships — for couples and in the workplace. He has Masters Degrees from the University of Arizona and Antioch University in Los Angeles.
Host: Doesn t honest criticism get your partner to change? Chris Wright: Honest criticism can get your partner to change but I want to be aware that you could be losing something that is precious and having a heartfelt connection together. I mean, there is a big difference between being critical and complaining and shaming your partner, intimidating your partner to gets your needs met.
First is empowering your partner, supporting your partner to change in a way that would meet your needs. In a marriage, I want as both could be committed, to being responsive to each other needs and to empower and support to each other to make those changes that are necessary.
Criticism and criticality in making the partner wrong may back fire. I mean contrast is, look and see in your vocabulary, how many empowerment words do you use. Look at this list on the chart that you have up, I mean, look and see in your vocabulary to use things like I appreciate, it makes such a difference, I know it is not easy, your perseverance is great, you are important here, do it your way, have fun, you can be a hero, it means a lot to me, thank you, I wanted to give you this gift of appreciation, I mean these are powerful messages that motivate. If you do the opposite and criticize and demean or cause the person to contract. I mean, after all in their world, what they do makes sense and so you can only set up a barrier resistance, that sort of erodes their goodwill and if they take a stand and defend to their world, now it is turning into an argument. Here you are trying to criticize in order to get them to change to meet your needs instead they are becoming more rigid, more sense of feeling, offended by what you did and so neither needs are being met in the process and so it becomes important for you to learn how to express your needs in a way that empowers and supports your partner to make the changes necessary.
Criticism doesn’t need to be so painful.
Posted Nov 04, 2018
We can all relate to being criticized and then feeling terrible. There is not a single one of us who derives pleasure from being criticized. It hits all of us very hard and certainly takes a toll for several reasons. One of the main reasons that criticism is so painful is because it stays with us longer than praise. This is truly a shame but it is the painful truth. Think about the last time that you got a compliment and were criticized on the same day. What hit you harder and stayed with you longer? It was most certainly the criticism and even now as you think about it you are experiencing a bit of displeasure at the very least. There are a number of other reasons why we feel badly, anxious, stressed etc. while and after being criticized. We feel judged. We feel attacked. We worry about losing love, relationships, jobs, and our good reputations. We associate criticism with loss and that makes us feel very vulnerable.
Sometimes criticism is delivered as an attempt to give helpful feedback. A colleague at work may be trying to make you aware of a behavior that is not helpful and should be modified for better performance. Other times, a friend may make a suggestion about your parenting skills. A parent may suggest that you dress differently or try out a new style. Depending on the delivery and the content, you may be more or less distressed. There may be times when you feel worse than others.
In my work, I have noticed that there are some people who seem to deal with criticism more effectively than others. They have developed a style in which they take control of the situation and don’t feel that they are helpless. They all seem to have one particular skill in common. They have learned how to defuse tense situations and disarm the person who is criticizing them. The person who is being critical almost consistently calms down and delivers information with a lighter touch. Read on to see what these skilled individuals of all ages do. These skills will not always work but they will certainly help you if you are inclined to try them. I can assure you that you will have ample opportunities and multiple situations in which to practice these skills.
When you are interacting with someone who is criticizing you here are some reactions and actions to try.
1. Stay calm. I know that your heart may be beating rapidly and your palms may become sweaty but you must breathe deeply and appear calm. Calmness, even if it does not come naturally or easily, always wins over agitation. You will get to the next several steps only if you can remain calm. Keep breathing deeply.
2. Listen. Before you start responding, let the person finish saying what they need to say. If you don’t, you will appear defensive and the other person may become more agitated. Remain quiet until you finish listening. It is only when you have heard the person out that you can think about what they have said. Take a moment to prepare your response. And, if you are not ready to respond then move on to step 3.
3. Tell the person who has just criticized you that you need time to think about what they have said. I am assuming that the person delivering the criticism to you is a meaningful person in your life. If the person criticizing you is a random stranger then you certainly have the option to move on and away from the situation immediately. However, if the person is important to you and you are not sure how to respond then buy yourself some time. Tell them that you will get back to them because you need 24 hours to think about this. This tends to be very helpful because we often feel differently about interactions after this crucial period of time has passed. Don’t we?
4. In any event, whether you respond immediately or are going to take 24 hours to think before responding it may be very helpful to think about whether or not there are any positive takeaway messages in the interaction. Perhaps the person who is delivering the feedback cares so deeply about you that they truly want you to be the best version of yourself. Maybe your boss is grooming you to take over her job when she gets a promotion and is trying to help you get that position. Keep in mind, that there may be something positive going on here and try to identify what that may be and see what you can learn.
5. If you are not sure if the feedback has any merit then consider running it by a trusted co-worker or friend who will be honest with you. They will help you figure out if the criticism is about you, about about the deliverer, or is some mix of the two. The emphasis here is on the word trust. Pick a person that you trust to speak the truth to you. It is easier to hear the truth from someone who knows you and cares about you.
6. When you decide to respond, ask for examples. If you are being told that you seem uninvolved, unprepared, inconsiderate, thoughtless etc. and this doesn’t ring true for you then ask for examples. This gives you something to work with and think about. Having global terms like sloppy, lazy etc. tossed at you is rarely helpful. Examples, on the other hand, are much more likely to serve you well.
7. This is a tough one but hear me out. Try to have a bit of empathy for the person talking to you. She may think that she is being polite when she is actually being aggressive. Or he may be so nervous that he may default to talking too much. In any event, you may feel calmer if you are studying the other person.
8. Consider doing something nice for yourself on the day that you have received information that feels critical. We all benefit from proper self-care.
How to Accept Criticism with Grace and Appreciation
By Leo Babauta
Every day, I get emails and comments that are amazingly positive and encouraging, and in truth these messages are the very thing that sustains my blogging. However, I also get negative comments now and then: criticism of my writing, and not nice criticism either.
How do you deal with criticism? I think the first reaction for most of us is to defend ourselves, or worse yet to lash back.
And yet, while criticism can be taken as hurtful and demoralizing, it can also be viewed in a positive way: it is honesty, and it can spur us to do better. It’s an opportunity to improve.
Recently, I ran an “Ask the Readers” post asking for suggestions for improvement, after receiving a few critical emails and comments. I responded to one of the critics with a “thank you” and asked him to comment in the Ask the Readers thread.
The reader emailed me back, and here was his response:
After sending my email, I felt I might have been a little harsh. But now, after reading your response, I think you would have the perfect qualities to write an article or two about taking criticism with grace and appreciation .
I really liked that thought, so here is that post he suggested: how to take criticism with grace and appreciation.
Stop Your First Reaction
If your first reaction is to lash back at the person giving the criticism, or to become defensive, take a minute before reacting at all. Take a deep breath, and give it a little thought.
Personally, I tend to get a little angry when I’m criticized. But I have also taught myself not to react right away. For example, I’ll let a critical email sit in my inbox for at least an hour before replying. Or I’ll walk away from someone instead of saying something I’ll regret later.
That cooling off time allows me to give it a little more thought beyond my initial reaction. It allows logic to step in, past the emotion. I don’t have anything against emotion, but when it’s a negative emotion, sometimes it can cause more harm than good. So I let my emotions run their course, and then respond when I’m calmer.
Turn a Negative Into a Positive
One of the keys to my success in anything I do is my ability to find positive things in things that most people see as a negative. Sickness forces me to stop my exercise program? That’s a welcome rest. Tired of my job? That’s a time to rediscover what’s important and to look for a better job. Supertyphoon ruined all my possessions? This allowed me to realize that my stuff wasn’t important, and to be thankful that my loved ones were still alive and safe.
You can do the same thing with criticism: find the positive in it. Sure, it may be rude and mean, but in most criticism, you can find a nugget of gold: honest feedback and a suggestion for improvement.
For example, this criticism: “You write about the same things over and over and your posts are boring and stale.”
Can be read: “I need to increase the variety of my posts and find new ways of looking at old things.”
That’s just one example of course — you can do that with just about any criticism. Sometimes it’s just someone having a bad day, but many times there’s at least a grain of truth in the criticism.
See it as an opportunity to improve — and without that constant improvement, we are just sitting still. Improvement is a good thing.
Thank the Critic
Even if someone is harsh and rude, thank them. They might have been having a bad day, or maybe they’re just a negative person in general. But even so, your attitude of gratitude will probably catch them off-guard.
And you know what? My habit of thanking my critics has actually won a few of them over. They became friends of mine, and eventually a couple of them became some of my biggest proponents. All because of a simple act of saying thank you for the criticism. It’s unexpected, and often appreciated.
And even if the critic doesn’t take your “thank you” in a good way, it’s still good to do — for yourself. It’s a way of reminding yourself that the criticism was a good thing for you, a way of keeping yourself humble.
Learn from the Criticism
After seeing criticism in a positive light, and thanking the critic, don’t just move on and go back to business as usual. Actually try to improve.
That’s a difficult concept for some people, because they often think that they’re right no matter what. But no one is always right. You, in fact, may be wrong, and the critic may be right. So see if there’s something you can change to make yourself better.
And then make that change. Actually strive to do better.
When I received criticism that my posts weren’t as good as they could be, I strove to improve. I tried hard to write better posts. Now, did I actually accomplish that? That’s a matter of opinion — some will say no, while others seemed to enjoy the posts. Personally, I’ve been rather proud of some of these posts, and I’m glad I made the extra effort.
Be the Better Person
Too many times we take criticism as a personal attack, as an insult to who we are. But it’s not. Well, perhaps sometimes it is, but we don’t have to take it that way. Take it as a criticism of your actions, not your person. If you do that, you can detach yourself from the criticism emotionally and see what should be done.
But the way that many of us handle the criticisms that we see as personal attacks is by attacking back. “I’m not going to let someone talk to me that way.” Especially if this criticism is made in public, such as in the comments of a blog. You have to defend yourself, and attack the attacker … right?
Wrong. By attacking the attacker, you are stooping to his level. Even if the person was mean or rude, you don’t have to be the same way. You don’t have to commit the same sins.
Be the better person.
If you can rise above the petty insults and attacks, and respond in a calm and positive manner to the meat of the criticism, you will be the better person. And guess what? There are two amazing benefits of this:
- Others will admire you and think better of you for rising above the attack. Especially if you remain positive and actually take the criticism well. This has happened to me, when people actually complimented me on how I handled attacking comments.
- You will feel better about yourself. By participating in personal attacks, we dirty ourselves. But if we can stay above that level, we feel good about who we are. And that’s the most important benefit of all.
How do you stay above the attacks and be the better person? By removing yourself from the criticism, and looking only at the actions criticized. By seeing the positive in the criticism, and trying to improve. By thanking the critic. And by responding with a positive attitude.
A quick example: Someone criticizes one of my posts by saying, “You’re an idiot. I don’t understand what x has to do with y.”
My typical response will be to first, ignore the first sentence. And second, to say something like, “Thanks for giving me an opportunity to clarify that. I don’t think I made it as clear as I should have. What x has to do with y is … blah blah. Thanks for the great question!”
And by ignoring the insult, taking it as an opportunity to clarify, thanking the critic, using the opportunity to explain my point further, and staying positive, I have accepted the criticism with grace and appreciation. And in doing so, remained the better person, and felt great about myself.
The world is not kind to modern self-esteem. It only takes one ill-received piece of feedback at work or sassy comment on an IG post to completely derail your day.
It can take a lot of time and energy to convince yourself that you’re awesome — so how do we avoid letting people infiltrate that awesomeness with a flying knee to your self-worth? And how do we use it to get better?
In these situations, your initial reaction may take inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech, a lesson on ignoring naysayers, around which optimists from LeBron James to Miley Cyrus rally. And who doesn’t want to be more like Miley?
Being alive in 2020 means getting hit by wave after wave of criticism, both online and off — as anyone who has ever left themselves at the mercy of a YouTube comments section or a Twitter pile-on will be able to testify.
However, naysayers are essential. Both personal and professional success depend on being able to take criticism in your stride. The ability to hear and truly listen to people’s opinions, even when they’re negative, improves relationships, academic performance, and negotiating abilities.
Plus, if you can learn to put aside your ego and use even harsh criticism to get better, you’ll have a powerful tool that can propel you forward personally and professionally.
In this article, we give you the low-down on how to handle what others have to say without wanting to hide in a corner or knock someone out.
Criticism is a term for judgment or evaluation, good or bad. It pops up everywhere. We’ve all had to save someone from wearing Crocs on vacation or texting that ex while intoxicated. Or, maybe we were the ones committing a fashion faux pas.
Any time someone gives you criticism, they’re evaluating you against specific standards, whether it’s their own or those of an organization, such as a place of work. Many students and employees associate the word “criticism” exclusively with negative feedback, which is not the case.
There are lots of reasons people offer criticism.
Negative motivations for criticism might include feeling jealous or insecure in a romantic or family relationship, such as a father criticizing his kids for never calling home. Others may criticize you out of sheer resentment — ever been on social media? Yeah, that.
But not all criticism is bad news, bears. If you have any rapper friends relentlessly playing their dreadful mixtape at people, you’ll be well aware that letting them know that their vocab is limited or their choice of beats ill-advised are the first steps to sparing them from future embarrassment.
And while the word “criticism” may see more frequent use when discussing negative evaluations, not all criticism comes with bad intentions — even when it highlights mistakes and failures. That’s because people give certain kinds of criticism to help. This is known as constructive criticism.
A 2018 research article evaluated constructive criticism models using focus group interviews with undergraduate students.
This process identified three important requirements for negative feedback to be constructive: Fong CJ, et al. (2018). When feedback signals failure but offers hope for improvement: A process model of constructive criticism. DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2018.02.014
- It’s compassionate: People should give criticism in a way that indicates care for the recipient, and it should come from someone the recipient respects.
- It’s specific: Criticism should target the appropriate elements of the recipient’s performance and offer specific guidance for improvement.
- It’s a match: Criticism should align with the recipient’s emotions and motivation.
You can use this list as a way to determine if a critic is trying to help or harm you.
In organizations where leaders don’t understand effective criticism, employees may feel like their guts are in a twist before approaching the boss’s office. And coaches who criticize without positive intent end up doing things like throwing basketballs at the young adults they’re supposed to be mentoring.
A 2017 research study showed that people who received “destructive criticism” at work reported higher perceived levels of workplace stress. Tao L, et al. (2017). An experimental study on the effect of constructive criticism and destructive criticism on individual psychological health.
Surprise, surprise, telling everyone they’re crap all the time doesn’t work wonders for them.
Knowing which type is coming your way can help you make better use of criticism. And it can save you from coming across like an asshole in the face of well-intentioned, constructive feedback, as well as protecting you from self-serving pedantry.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Royalty Free)
Whether it is about a work product or a social media post, you may feel like you are being attacked or trolled. Some criticism may be valid, but mean-spirited criticism is uncalled for. Either way, people can fall into the trap of snapping back when being criticized.
Human beings, naturally, are defensive. And, yes, you should defend your character and integrity. But defend yourself in a way that demonstrates your leadership. Here are six ways to respond to criticism and maintain your self-respect:
1. Listen before you speak.
When you have been criticized, your gut reaction may be to defend your actions or intentions. Try to listen before you speak. Take a deep breath. Speaking without listening could escalate the situation. If the other person does not feel like they have been heard, they may get even more frustrated and make it more difficult to come to a resolution.
It takes courage to listen. Listen to learn and understand. The better you understand where the person is coming from, the better you will be able to address the situation. People recognize leaders by how well they listen for understanding.
2. Ask questions.
When it is time to respond, start with questions. It is easy to go into attack mode. But questions help you stay clear of forceful or confrontational language and assertions. Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson says, “By asking genuine questions, motivated by curiosity and caring, you convey that others matter.”
Ask questions to clarify the situation and confirm your understanding. Consider phrases like “I’m hearing [X], is that accurate?,” “It sounds like [X], does that sound right?,” “I’d like to better understand [X], would you share more?” or “You feel [X], is that correct?” Ask for feedback, and set the tone for a dialogue.
3. Focus on the facts.
In situations where there is friction between two people, it helps to focus on the facts. There are three sides to every story – your side, their side and what actually happened. People appreciate it when they see others strive to be objective, sometimes because they themselves have a hard time being objective. Model the way you hope the discussion to go by staying calm and sticking to the facts.
But don’t be rigid. You can show that you are human and empathetic with an apology, if it is warranted. A little emotion can let the other person know that you are trying to understand how they feel.
Gallery: 2017 Power Women: Top 20
4. Communicate by phone or in-person to avoid miscommunication.
Words can easily be misinterpreted in an email or a text. It can be difficult to strike the right tone and clearly communicate your intentions with the written word. Pick up the phone or speak with the individual in-person so they can hear and see you. How you respond is just as important as what you say.
5. Talk with another person to gain perspective.
Perspective comes with hindsight, but try to get it contemporaneously, too. If you have the opportunity and feel comfortable, share the situation with a colleague, friend or family member. This third person might be able to look at the situation more objectively than you. They can ask questions that make you think about the situation in a different way. Perspective can make the scenario feel less personal and will allow you to respond more effectively.
6. Reflect on the situation that led to the criticism.
In addition to getting someone else’s perspective on the situation, try to gain clarity on your own. Consider your perspective, the critic’s perspective and the third party’s perspective. You may be able to identify something that triggered the scenario.
Or you may not be able to put your finger on the spark that caused the criticism. There are times when you might ask yourself, “Where did this reaction come from?” In a CBS ’60 Minutes’ vignette about trauma, Oprah learned to not ask herself, “What’s wrong with that person?” but rather, “What happened to that person?”
Sometimes, someone’s criticism towards you has nothing to do with you. If a stranger is criticizing you on social media, for example, sometimes it is best not to respond. Other times, don’t be dismissive and think it is someone else’s problem. Be human. Listen. Ask questions. Lead.
Criticism can be hard to take. It may not feel as bad if you see it as a learning experience. Remember to listen, ask questions, focus on the facts, communicate by phone or in-person and gain perspective. Reflecting on how you respond to criticism will make you better at addressing criticism the next time. As the old adage goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
How do you respond to criticism and demonstrate your leadership? Share with me your stories and thoughts via Twitter or LinkedIn.
Let me guess: Hearing the words, “We need to talk” from a boss, partner or friend sends you into panic mode. If you hate hearing about the things you’ve done wrong and the mistakes you’ve made, you’re not alone. But it’s a catch-22. We don’t like being criticized, but honest feedback is one of the most valuable tools we have for self-improvement.
Criticism hurts for a reason, and the explanation lies in neuroscience. In order to keep us alive, our brains have evolved to react much more strongly to negative things. The brain has evolved this way for a good reason: to keep us safe. Just as 20,000 years ago, the brain was trying to keep hunter-gatherers safe from warring tribes, your brain reacts the same way to a critical comment from your spouse or boss.
But just because that negative feedback hurts, should your partner have avoided giving it? And should you avoid doing the same?
No way—as long as you put a little bit of thought into it.
Research from the University of Michigan shows that the right dose of constructive criticism is actually one of the biggest factors in predicting a high-performing team. And research from John Gottman, Ph.D., a top relationship researcher, also found there’s a sweet spot for how much criticism helps keep relationships alive.
Both teams of researchers arrived at a similar conclusion: In order to keep a relationship or work team performing well, five or six positive interactions were needed for every one criticism or negative interaction.
Criticism, when delivered thoughtfully, helps teams perform better and helps people improve their behavior. It also wakes people up and makes them realize they can’t be complacent. If people on your team are doing a terrible job, they deserve to know so they can improve their work. And if your partner is acting in a way that upsets you, he or she should know why.
Keeping this research in mind, here are a few tips for delivering criticism.
• Think about your motives.
Are you criticizing someone because you’re in a bad mood or you want to put him or her down? Stop, take a deep breath and walk away. Criticism based on anger and contempt will only lead to destruction of the relationship.
• Never attack the person.
Instead, criticize the action. Do your best to separate the behavior and the person. Don’t attack the person’s character; focus on the behavior. This allows the person to consider the feedback without feeling as defensive.
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