Responding to Criticism Non-Defensively:
Conversation Can Have Different Rules than War
By Sharon Strand Ellison
Introduction — For All of Us
In an actual war,
to be attacked means to have our survival threatened. When we feel attacked —
criticized, judged, or in any way negated by others in conversation — we often move into that
same kind of survival mentality and automatically defend ourselves. But
conversation is different than war. It doesn't work to use the rules for one activity for a completely diferent one. We'd never use the rules for baseball to play a game of football.
When we defend against criticism,
we give more power to the criticism and the person dishing it out
than is warranted.
While we might need
to set some limits if someone is verbally abusive, I think we often ward
off criticism far too soon, discarding anything that is valid, as well
as what is invalid. The person's words may hurt, but they will hurt less,
I think, if we ask questions, decide which pieces we agree with (if any)
and which ones we don't agree with. We can just think about it, we don't
have to fight it as if we were being attacked with a lethal weapon. I
watch people's self-esteem increase simply from becoming less defensive
in the face of criticism and judgment. Besides, we may find a priceless
gem among the junk.
The War Model: When someone attacks, you surrender, withdraw, or counterattack.
The Non-Defensive Model: Ask questions, decide what you think, and then respond!
Following are 3 sets of tips for: Couples, Parents, & Professionals:
For Couples — Avoid the "Pay-Back" When One of You "Gets Critical"
When we are in intimate relationships, we often have a "ledger
of offenses" that we have accumulated with each other. And what I
do that offends you often prompts the reaction in you that offends me.
So when you criticize me, your partner, it reminds me of what you do that "makes" me react that way. And so the counterattack
game begins. "Well, I wouldn't have to react this way if you didn't
always . . ." or, "Look at you criticizing me for having
a double standard. Haven't you ever looked in a mirror?!"
Instead, if we listen to the feedback, however judgmental it sounds,
and figure out whether we think it applies to us or not, then we don't
have to retaliate immediately and intensify the conflict. Later, during
the same conversation, or perhaps even at another time, we can ask the other person (if we are sincerely curious and not point-proving)
"Do you think your sarcasm (for example) contributed in any way to
how I reacted?" or, "Do you think you ever (for example) have
double standardsor do you think you don't?" We can bring
up related issues, if we create a transition period and deal first with
the one our partner brought up.
To remain non-defensive, we must separate how we take accountability
for ourselves from whether or not the other person choses to do so at any
given moment. When we need to prove our partner is as "bad as we
are" or worse, we are neck-deep in the muck of power struggle. In
non-defensive communication, we address the issue the other person has
brought up trusting that we can bring up our own issue later. Doing so
can give both partners a "hearing aid."
For Parents — Responding Effectively when Your Child (of any age) Criticizes You:
As parents, we love our children so much yet often simultaneously
feel inadequate to meet all their needs. They sense this and can learn
early how to make us feel guilty as a way to get what they want. I hear
so many children, starting at a young age, speaking in harsh critical
tones to their parents. Ginny may simply say, "You know I hate peas!" George might shout, "You never want to let me do anything
with my friends!" The judgment might be more deeply critical of your
choices, such as, "You made dad leave! You should tell him you're
sorry so he'll come back."
When we respond to our child or teen or even our adult child's criticism,
if guilt has a hold on us, we may "take it," and even apologize,
or try to explain ourselves so he or she understands why we behaved in
a certain way. If we are over our own edges, we may lash back.
What I think we can do instead is to separate the tone of the judgment
from the content of what is being said. We can say to Ginny, "If
you don't want peas, I still want you to tell me gently" or, "If
you speak to me harshly, then I'm not going to answer. If you speak respectfully,
I'll talk to you about this."
Then, if that child, teen or adult offspring does talk without harsh
judgment, we can, if it is appropriate, offer to discuss the situation.
In this way, we can not only refuse to cave in to undue criticism, we
can model for our children how to (a) talk about what they need and feel
without being judgmental, and (b) respond with a blend of firmness and
openness even when someone speaks harshly to us or them.
For Professionals — Instead of "Passing the Blame," Enhance Others' Respect for How You Respond to Criticism
In professional relationships how we get our own work done is often
dependent on how well other people do their jobs. So, frequently, when
we receive criticism it is easy to "pass the buck" and justify
why we had difficulty with our part based on how others contributed to
Instead of starting out by shifting blame or making excuses, even
if we think the problem was caused by a co-worker, we can ask questions,
such as, "What would you suggest I do differently next time?"
or, "Were you aware that I had to get the materials from Jane before
I could finish the project?" or, "If she doesn't have her part
of the project to me on time, how would you suggest I deal with it?"
If the feedback is about your own performance and not related
to what anyone else has or hasn't done, you can just start by asking for
more information. You can ask for additional details about how the supervisor
or co-worker sees your attitude and behavior. Then, if there are points
where you disagree, you can still use questions, such as, "If you
think I shouldn't have criticized the quality of George's work on the
project, are you saying I should just accept however he does it?"
or, "Are you saying I should just accept how he did it, or do you
think it was the way I said it?" or, "Do you think there is any
way I can let him know when I think the quality needs improvement?"
At some point you may wish to disagree with part or all of what the person
is saying. However, if your initial response to criticism is to gather
more information, I think you will gain professional respect. Also, if
the other person is off-base, your questions may prompt her or him to
re-think the criticism.
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