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Responding to Criticism Without Being Defensive

How to learn from constructive criticism and ignore the rest.

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The War Model: When someone attacks, you surrender, withdraw, or counterattack...

In an actual war, to be attacked means to have our survival threatened. Thus, we might chose between surrender, withdrawal, or counterattack. When we feel attacked (criticized or judged) by others in conversation, we often move into that same kind of survival mentality and automatically defend ourselves. But conversation is different than war. 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 judgement. Besides, we may find a priceless gem in with some junk.

The Non-Defensive Model: Ask questions, decide what you think, and then respond!

The remainder of this article will demonstrate how to respond non-defensively to criticism by giving examples for parents, couples, and professionals. While the examples are specific to a certain type of relationship, the information is valuable in any relationship. For example, dealing with harsh tones or "pay-backs" can happen with anybody, at home or at school.

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 standards-or 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 ourselves from whether or not the other person chooses 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."

More Examples

This article is based on 'Taking the War Out of Our Words' by Sharon Ellison, available through your local bookstore or favorite online bookseller. Sharon Ellison, M.S. is an award winning speaker and international consultant.

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