By Sharon Ellison
In an actual war, to be attacked means
to have our survival threatened. Thus,
we might chose between surrender,
withdrawal, or counterattack. When we feel
attacked (criticized or judged) by others in conversation, we often move into
that same kind of survival mentality and automatically defend ourselves. But
conversation is different than war. When we defend against criticism, we give
more power to the criticism and the person dishing it out than is warranted.
While we might need to set some limits if someone is verbally abusive, I think
we often ward off criticism far too soon, discarding anything that is valid, as
well as what is invalid. The person's words may hurt, but they will hurt less,
I think, if we ask questions, decide which pieces we agree with (if any) and
which ones we don't agree with. We can just think about it, we don't have to
fight it as if we were being attacked with a lethal weapon. I watch people's
self-esteem increase simply from becoming less defensive in the face of
criticism and judgement. Besides, we may find a priceless gem in with some junk.
The War Model: When someone attacks, you surrender, withdraw, or counterattack.
The Non-Defensive Model: Ask questions, decide what you think, and then respond!
The remainder of this article will demonstrate how to respond non-defensively
to criticism by giving examples for parents, couples, and professionals. While
the examples are specific to a certain type of relationship, the information is
valuable in any relationship. For example, dealing with harsh tones or
"pay-backs" can happen with children or adults, at home or at work.
Parents: Are You Letting Your Child Speak Harshly to You? Or Putting Up With
Criticism Because of Guilt?
As parents, we often love our children so much and simultaneously feel
inadequate to meet all their needs. They sense this and can learn early how to
make us feel guilty as a way to get what they want. I hear so many children,
starting at a young age, speaking in harsh critical tones to their parents.
Ginny may simply say "You know I hate peas!" Sam might shout "You never want to
let me do anything with my friends!" The judgment might be more deeply critical
of your choices, such as, "You made dad leave! You should tell him you're sorry
so he'll come back."
When we respond to our child or teen or even our adult child's criticism, if
guilt has a hold on us, we may "take it," and even apologize, or try to explain
ourselves so he or she understands why we behaved in a certain way. If we are
over our own edges, we may lash back.
What I think we can do instead is to separate the tone of the judgment from the
content of what is being said. We can say to Ginny, "If you don't want peas, I
still want you to tell me gently." Or, "If you speak to me harshly, then I'm
not going to answer. If you speak respectfully, I'll talk to you about this."
Then, if that child, teen or adult offspring does talk without harsh judgment,
we can, if it is appropriate, offer to discuss the situation. In this way, we
can not only refuse to cave in to undue criticism, we can model for our
children how to (a) talk about what they need and feel without being
judgemental, and (b) respond with a blend of firmness and openness even when
someone speaks harshly to us or them.
Couples: Avoid the "Pay-Back" When One of You "Gets Critical"
When we are in intimate relationships, we often have a "ledger of offenses"
that we have accumulated with each other. And what I do that offends you often
prompts the reaction in you that offends me. So when you criticize me, your
partner, it reminds me of what you do that "makes" me react that way. And so
the counterattack game begins. "Well, I wouldn't have to react this way if you
didn't always . . ." Or, "Look at you criticizing me for having a double
standard. Haven't you ever looked in a mirror?!"
Instead, if we listen to the feedback, however judgmental it sounds, and figure
out whether we think it applies to us or not, then we don't have to retaliate
immediately and intensify the conflict. Later, during the same conversation, or
perhaps even at another time, we can ask the other person (if we are sincerely
curious and not point-proving) "Do you think your sarcasm (for example)
contributed in any way to how I reacted?" Or, "Do you think you ever (for
example) have double standards-or do you think you don't?" We can bring up
related issues, if we create a transition period and deal first with the one
our partner brought up.
To remain non-defensive, we must separate how we take accountability ourselves
from whether or not the other person chooses to do so at any given moment. When
we need to prove our partner is as "bad as we are" or worse, we are neck-deep
in the muck of power struggle. In non-defensive communication, we address the
issue the other person has brought up trusting that we can bring up our own
issue later. Doing so can give both partners a "hearing aid."
Professionals: Drop The Game of Passing the Blame and Enhance Others' Respect.
In professional relationships how we get our own work done is often dependent
on how well other people do their jobs. So, frequently, when we receive
criticism it is easy to "pass the buck" and justify why we had difficulty with
our part based on how others contributed to that difficulty.
Instead of starting out by shifting blame or making excuses, even if we think
the problem was caused by a co-worker, we can ask questions, such as, "What
would you suggest I do differently next time?" or, "Were you aware that I had
to get the materials from Jane before I could finish the project?" Or, "If she
doesn't have her part of the project to me on time, how would you suggest I
deal with it?"
If the feedback is about your own performance and not related to what anyone
else has or hasn't done, you can just start by asking for more information. You
can ask for additional details about how the supervisor or co-worker sees your
attitude and behavior. Then, if there are points where you disagree, you can
still use questions, such as, "If you think I shouldn't have criticized the
quality of George's work on the project, are you saying I should just accept
however he does it?" Or, "Are you saying I should just accept how he did it, or
do you think it was how I said it?" Or, "Do you think there is any way I can
let him know when I think the quality needs improvement?" At some point you may
wish to disagree with part or all of what the person is saying. However, if
your initial response to criticism is to gather more information, I think you
will gain professional respect. Also, if the other person is off-base, your
questions may prompt her or him to re-think the criticism.
Building Wisdom and Gaining Respect
For most of us, responding to criticism without defending our selves has meant
being "defenseless," caving in, losing face, feeling bad about ourselves. On
the other hand, responding defensively has meant being harsh, closed, shutting
others out. This is a no-win choice. We look bad and undermine our own self
esteem either way. If we can learn to respond to criticism with true
non-defensive openness and clarity, asking questions, stating our position, and
setting limits when needed, we can build our own wisdom and garner the respect
of both the children and adults in our lives.