Can You Take Criticism?

No one likes being criticized. We cringe when we hear the words “We have to talk.” Sometimes we don’t even get a fair warning of what’s coming. It’s natural to get defensive. It’s even healthy to defend ourselves against an unfair character assassination that could devastate our self esteem. But if we value this friendship and want to maintain a relationship with the critic, we need to engage in non-defensive communication. This requires maturity on our part while we are on our best behavior.

Harriet Lerner, PhD, lists 12 keys to non-defensive listening in her book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.

  1. Recognize your defensiveness. This will allow you time to get some perspective rather than lashing out reactively.
  2. Breathe. Calm yourself.
  3. Listen only to understand. Do not interrupt, argue, correct facts or state your own criticisms.
  4. Ask questions about whatever you don’t understand.
  5. Find something you can agree with.
  6. Apologize for your part in the spirit of collaboration.
  7. Let the offended party know they have been heard and that you will continue to think about the conversation.
  8. Thank them for sharing their feelings.
  9. Take the initiative to bring the conversation up again.
  10. Draw the line at insults.
  11. Don’t listen when you can’t listen well.
  12. Define how you see some things differently. A premature apology from an overly accommodating, peace-at-any-price type of person is unsatisfying.

If we are the one doing the criticizing, we need to watch our words and understand the difference between a complaint, criticism and contempt. According to researcher John Gottman, PhD, 96% of the time, the outcome of an argument can be predicted based on the first three minutes of a conversation. Starting a conversation in a soft manner is far more effective than a harsh start-up. A complaint is specific, limited to one situation, and states how you feel. Example: “I’m upset that you didn’t pay the gas bill.” A criticism is global, includes blame, and often has words like always and never. Example: “How can I ever trust you?” Contempt is a verbal attack on your character. Example: “You stupid jerk.”

Before you confront someone on a point of contention, remind yourself of the value of this relationship. If you value them, it is worth taking the time to frame your complaint in a manner that they can hear.


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