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7 Steps to Dealing with Criticism

Here are 7 things to do when you're being criticized.

Roman Demkiv/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Demkiv/Shutterstock

When it comes to criticism, it is surely better to give than to receive. No one enjoys being criticized, and we're bound to respond badly to it. We're all wired for defensiveness; it's a normal and almost universal response to criticism, but it's also the archenemy of intimacy and connection. Our personal power rests on our dialing it down.

Following these 7 steps can help you keep your response from escalating, and turn your relationships around, but each requires 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 see that you are focusing only on the inaccuracies, distortions, and exaggerations that will inevitably 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, deep breaths, and 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 time, 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 mode and 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 of individual 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 a better 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 for repairing big betrayals and everyday hurts. Wholehearted listening is also at the heart of relationship success, at home and at work. We're generally more interested in sharpening 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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