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 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 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 that difficulty.

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.


The Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication • Contact Us
Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is a trademarked name. © 1994-2016 Sharon Strand Ellison

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Tips & Examples:

Responding to Criticism Non-Defensively

1. For Couples — Avoid the "Pay-Back" When One of You "Gets Critical"

2. For Parents — Responding Effectively when Your Child (of any age) Criticizes You

3. For Professionals — Instead of "Passing the Blame," Enhance Others' Respect for How You Respond to Criticism

4. Sharon's Closing Thoughts on Vulnerability, Power, & Trust

Also See:

Eliminating Victim
Mind-set

Talking to Ourselves — Getting Rid of Old, Self-Defeating Scripts

Vulnerability as a Source of Strength