Three simple steps for dealing with criticism

200070382-001It’s been longer than I would like since my last blog entry. I apologize for this, life got pretty busy for me. In thinking of what I could write about today, I was reminded of how often we hear some sort of criticism in our lives–constructive or the other kind–and how tough of a time I’ve had learning to deal with it. I thought writing a few words on an effective way to deal with it would be helpful. In writing this article I am indebted to David Burns’ wonderful book Feeling Good for the bones of the step-by-step process.

Why is criticism so hurtful to some people, and others don’t seem bothered by even the most acidic attack? Wouldn’t you like to be part of the second crowd? I know I would. Learning to overcome your fear of criticism will take practice, but it’s not a difficult skill to master. I’ll attempt to write down the three simple (but not necessarily easy) steps in how to respond to criticism.

Step 1: Empathy

When someone is criticizing or attacking you, his or her motives are either to help you or to hurt you. The critic may be right, wrong, or somewhere in between, but it’s not wise to focus on that part at first. Instead, get curious: ask the person a series of specific questions designed to find out exactly what he or she means. Do your best to avoid being judgmental or defensive as you ask. Attempt to see the world through your critic’s eyes. If you are getting attacked with vague, insulting labels for example, ask him to be more specific and point out exactly what is it about you the person dislikes. This initial step alone often goes a long way to getting them off your back, and will help transform the dynamic from an attack-defense interaction to one of collaboration and mutual respect. Here’s a brief example, as if a client of mine was the critic–and it’s meant to be hurtful, not helpful:

Critic: Jason, you’re a no-good piece of crap.

Me: What about me is crappy?

Critic: Everything you say and do. You’re insensitive, self-centered and incompetent.

Me: Okay, try to be specific. I must have done or said a number of things to upset you. What did I say that sounded insensitive? How did I give you the impression I’m self-centered? What did I do that seemed incompetent?

Critic: When I called to change my appointment earlier you were rushed and irritable, like you were in a big hurry and didn’t give a damn about me.

Me: Okay, I came across in a rushed, uncaring way on the phone. What else have I done that irritated you?

What I do is simple. By asking specific questions I minimize the possibility that someone will reject me completely. Instead I get an understanding of concrete problems that we can deal with. I’m also giving the critic their way by listening to them to see the situation as he sees it. With empathy. This tends to defuse anger and hostility and introduces a problem-solving orientation instead of blame casting or debate.

Remember the first rule–even if you feel the criticism is totally unjust, respond with empathy by asking specific questions.

Step 2: Disarming the Critic

If someone is shooting at you, you have three choices: stand and shoot back (usually leading to war and mutual destruction), try to run away or dodge the bullets (often resulting in humiliation or loss of self-esteem), or stay put and disarm your opponent. This is usually the most satisfying. By doing this you end up the winner, and your opponent will usually feel like a winner too.

Whether your critic is right or wrong, initially find some way to agree with him or her. Let’s assume the critic is mostly correct. Going back to the previous example with a fictional client of mine I might respond by saying, “You’re totally right. I was rushed when you called and probably sounded impersonal. Other people have pointed this out to me at times. I want to emphasize I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings.”

Let’s instead suppose the criticisms are unfair and not true. It’s still easy to agree in principle with the criticism, or find some grain of truth in the statement and agree with that. According to the rules you have to (1) find a way to agree with whatever the other person says, (2) avoid sarcasm or defensiveness, and (3) always speak the truth. Here’s an example:

Client: Jason, you’re a worthless piece of crap.

Me: I feel that way sometimes. I often mess up at things.

Client: Your therapy is no good! It’s worthless!

Me: There’s definitely plenty of room for improvement.

Client: And you’re stupid.

Me: There are lots of people smarter than I am, there’s no doubt about that.

Client: You’re not a real therapist. Your therapy is superficial and gimmicky. You’re not trustworthy or competent to help me!

Me: I’m not always as warm and open as I’d like to be. I’m terribly sorry I seem incompetent to you. It must be very disturbing to you. You seem to find it difficult to trust me, and are genuinely skeptical about whether we can work together effectively. You’re absolutely right–we can’t work together successfully unless we have a sense of mutual respect and teamwork.

By this time an angry critic will usually run out of steam. Because I’m not fighting back but find ways to agree with my opponent, the person quickly runs out of ammunition, having been successfully disarmed. I think of this as winning by avoiding battle.

This step is good to practice with someone else. A good way to practice is find a friend and one play the critic, the other the “disarmer,” then switch roles. Remember to keep it realistic, don’t make the scenario unwinnable. You’ll almost certainly have a tendency to defend yourself. This is a major mistake! You’ll notice that if you do this, the intensity of the critic’s attack increases–think of it as adding ammunition to them. When someone responds with empathy and disarms hostility, usually the critic feeling listened to and respected. They will lose their desire to do battle and quiet down. This paves the way to step three.

Step 3: Feedback and Negotiation

Once you have listened to your critic using empathy, and disarmed him by finding a way to agree with him, you’ll be in a position to explain your position and emotions tactfully and assertively, and negotiate any real differences.

Let’s first assume the critic is just plain wrong. How can you express this? Simple: express your point of view objectively with the acknowledgment you might be wrong. Make the disagreement based on fact rather than personality or pride.

Sometimes you and your critic will differ not on fact, but on taste or opinion. Again, you’ll be a winner if you present your point of view with diplomacy. For example, no matter how I dress as a therapist, some people like how I dress and some people don’t. After completing steps 1 and 2 I just state that after dressing in a variety of ways I’ve found what I wear is acceptable to the majority of the people I work with, and I like it. If they continue to badger you, just repeat your response politely but firmly over and over until they tire out. Sometimes you’ll have to settle for part of what you want, but if you apply the empathy and disarming techniques, you’ll likely get more of what you want.

Sometimes you are the one who is plain wrong, and the critic is right. In those cases their respect for you will probably increase if you agree with the criticism. Thank them for the information, apologize for any hurt if necessary. This is amazingly effective, and takes real maturity to do.

By this point you might be saying, “But don’t I have a right to defend myself when someone criticizes me? Why do I always have to be the one empathizing? Why should I always have to smooth things out?”

Think about the kind of message you ultimately want to send. If your message is “I’m mad and since you’re criticizing me you’re no good,” you will poison your relationship with that person. If you defend yourself from negative feedback in a defensive and vengeful way, you’ll reduce the prospect for productive interaction in the future. While being angry momentarily feels good, ultimately you might defeat yourself by burning your bridges. You’ve also eliminated your chance to learn what the critic was trying to convey. Remember some criticism is constructive! What’s worse, you may later feel guilty and punish yourself for your burst of temper.

By practicing and following these three simple steps, you’ll be able to deal a lot better with criticism instead of taking it personally. You’re much more likely to preserve relationships, and you’ll feel more confident as a result.


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