How to Respond to Criticism

Criticism often reveals more about the critic than the person being criticized.

Posted Feb 21, 2018

“It seems every time I turn around someone is complaining or griping at me,” fumed Colin “My boss picks apart every report I turn in. My wife doesn’t like the way I drive. The kids hate the food I cook.” Colin’s tendency to overreact to even minor criticisms caused him needless pain and suffering. A simple remark from his son David, “Dad, I don’t like mustard on my hot dog,” was met by a ten-minute tirade about “ungrateful kids.”

Who can go through life without being criticized? Nobody! Yet very few people know how to respond to criticism appropriately or how to deal with it effectively. Basically, criticism can fall into three categories. It can be irrelevant, destructive, or constructive. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Irrelevant criticism is best ignored. Some individuals are so critical of everything and everyone that they will throw in critical comments that may have nothing to do with the situation at hand: “…and your sister has knobby knees.” Irrelevant comments such as this are not worthy of a response, or of any emotional reaction on your part. In fact, ignoring them may encourage the criticizer to lighten up. Of course, few people have mastery of their emotional reactions, and it’s natural to feel annoyed by such remarks, but not responding is the important thing. Why dignify an irrelevant criticism with a response?

Destructive criticism usually comes in the form of an attack, a character assassination, or a total put down. “You are a selfish pig!” “You are a disgusting person!” “You are stupid and incompetent!” If you are ever at the receiving end of such criticisms, try to realize that there is something wrong with the critic, with the person dishing out those remarks, not with you. A rational, grounded, sensible person does not resort to extreme mudslinging. Hence, whenever someone criticizes excessively in a hostile manner, consider that there is something psychologically wrong with him or her. Indeed, these irrational, ad hominem statements reveal a lot more about the critic than the person being criticized. 

It is silly to take such criticisms to heart or to give them any credence. Rather, ask the critic to define his or her terms. For instance, if someone calls you "stupid and incompetent," ask, “What is it exactly that makes you say I am stupid and incompetent?” The answer may sound something like this: “Well, you forgot to mail that important letter for me and you also made two errors when totaling the receipts for the day.” An assertive person might respond that she or he had made some mistakes, but that does not make him or her a totally stupid and incompetent human being.

The positive note on this topic, constructive criticism, can be useful because it speaks to the issues and offers a learning experience. For example, “I think you need to be more attentive. You omitted to mail that important letter and you made two errors when adding up the receipts.” Truly skillful constructive critics often use the “sandwich technique” that puts the meat of the criticism between two positive comments. So, in the above example, one might say, “I really appreciate how quickly you get your work done. But I think you need to be more attentive. You omitted to mail that important letter and you made two errors when adding up the receipts. Still, on the whole, thanks for the good work your doing.”

Many well-intentioned people, otherwise quite sensible and highly intelligent, have no idea how to give constructive criticism. They may also be unaware when they are being negative. Instead of recoiling with pain or taking offense, it may be useful to try to instruct such a person. Hal turns to Ron and says, “You are obviously a half-witted moron!” Ron inquires, “Hey Hal, do you know the difference between destructive and constructive criticism?”  Now don’t expect Hal to roll over and say, “I apologize for insulting you. Please teach me how to change my style.” It is often sufficient to simply mention the existence of constructive and destructive alternatives. Thus, rather than asking for specifics, in some cases, this simple statement can be quite helpful in itself. After delivering his rejoinder, Ron can walk away. If Hal is not half-witted, while he might not necessarily change his approach, he’ll likely get the message.

In essence, if a criticism is irrelevant, ignore it. If it is destructive and you can do so without getting into deeper trouble, challenge the critic by asking for specifics. If it’s constructive, learn from it.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Dear Reader: The advertisements contained in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me. — Clifford

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.

About the Authors

Arnold Lazarus

Arnold A. Lazarus is a professor of psychology, therapist, author, lecturer, and clinical innovator.

Donna Astor-Lazarus

Donna Astor-Lazarus is the Co-Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute.

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