The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

10 Steps to Handling Unfair Criticism

Criticism is surely more blessed to give than to receive.

When it comes to criticism, it is surely mored blessed to give than to receive. No one enjoys being on the receiving end of a critical comment and it's harder still when the criticism isn't fair.

When the other person's criticisms feel flatly irrational, or just plain wearing, we listen defensively. We automatically listen for the inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions, so that we can refute errors, make our case, and remind the other party of their wrongdoings.

You can decide to listen differently. I'll use a couple relationship as an example, but these same  10 steps apply to your relationship with a friend, parent, or boss.

1. Listen attentively to your partner without planning your reply.

2. Ask questions about whatever you don't understand.

3. Find something to agree with even if it's embedded in exaggerations and inaccuracies.

4.Apologzie for your part.

5. Don't counter-criticize. There is a time to bring up your own grievances, but that time is not when your partner has taken the initiative to voice her complaints.

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6. State your differences ("Here's the piece I don't agree with...") only after your partner feels truly heard and only after you are calm enough to do so without putting down your partner.

7. Ask, "Do I have this right? and "Is there more you haven't told me?"

8. Don't try to listen when you can't. Instead say, "I want to have this conversation, but not now because I'm too tired and distracted. Let's talk tomorrow morning over coffee."

9. Let your partner know her criticisms have effected you. "It's not easy to hear what you're telling me, but I want you to know that I'm going to give it a lot of thought."

10. Take the iniative to re-visit the conversation in the next 48 hours. ("I've been thinking about our conversation and I'm really glad that we had the conversation.")

No one likes being on the receiving end of unfair criticism and exaggerations, so this is the perfect opportunity to put your listening skills to the test.

Of course, you do need to share your differences ("I thought about our conversation and I'm really sorry I ignored you at the party. But I don't agree that I caused your over-drinking that night like you said I did. I'm responsible for my behavior, but not for yours.)

Remember that the other person  will listen better if you save your defense for a future conversation or at least until after she or he feels fully heard and understood.


Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.


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