When it comes to criticism, it is surely more blessed to give than to receive. No one enjoys being criticized, and we're bound to respond badly. Following these 7 steps will keep things from going south.

We're all wired for defensiveness when we're criticized. Defensiveness is normal and universal. It's also the archenemy of intimacy and connection. Our personal power rests on our dialing it down.

Following these seven steps can turn your relationships around, but, as simple as they sound, each takes motivation, goodwill, and practice. 

1. Recognize your defensiveness.  We listen defensively when we listen for what we don’t agree with. Under fire? Catch yourself when you are focusing on the inaccuracies, distortions, and exaggerations that inevitably will be there. 

2. Breathe. Defensiveness starts in the body. It makes us tense and on guard, unable to listen and take in new information. Take slow and deep breaths. Do what you can to calm yourself.

3. Listen only to understand.  Listen only to discover what you can agree with. Do not interrupt, argue, refute or correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms and complaints. If your points are legitimate, that’s all the more reason to save them for a different conversation, when they can be a focus of the conversation and not a defense strategy.

3. Apologize for your part.  The ability to apologize indicates to the critical party that you’re capable of taking responsibility, not just evading it. It will also help shift the exchange out of combat into collaboration. Save your thoughts about their part until later.

4.  Let the critical or angry person know that you will continue to think about the conversation.  Even if nothing has been resolved, tell the other person that you take his or her thoughts and feelings seriously. (“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.”)

5. Don’t listen when you can’t.  It’s fine to tell the other person that you want to have the conversation and that you recognize its importance, but you can’t have it right now. (“I’m too tired and preoccupied to really listen.”). Offer a specific time to re-open the conversation so that you can give it your best attention.

6. Speak your own truths.  You need to tell the critical person how you see things differently. It won’t help your relationship to get into the pattern of being an overly accommodating, peace-at-any-price type person who avoids conflict at any cost. Still, timing and tact are everything. It’s usually best to save your different point of view for a future conversation when you’ll have the best chance of being heard.  Remember that even the most difficult things can be said with kindness.

7.Draw the line at insults.  There may be a time to sit through an initial blast, but not if rudeness has become a pattern in your relationship, rather than an uncommon occurrence. Exit from rudeness while offering the possibility of another conversation (“I want to hear what bothers you, but I need you to approach me with respect.”) 

In  Why Won’t You Apologize, I explain how wholehearted listening is at the heart of the good apology—and essential in repairing big betrayals and every-day hurts.  Wholehearted listening is also at the heart of relationship success in both love and work.

Yes, we’re all interested in sharpening up our talking skills rather than our listening skills. But here’s what four decades of studying relationships has taught me: How we listen is the defining factor in how our relationships go and whether the other person is happy to see us at the end of the day.


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