Dealing with criticism can be challenging. By making just a few adjustments to how you interact with it means you potentially create a substantial change – in any relationship.
No-one is naturally critical. Judgements and criticism can surface when there is frustration and the quality of communication is deteriorating. Criticism is generally just a confused and often ineffective way of asking for a change in behaviour.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions of how can you deal with criticism and play your part in improving communication in your relationships.
Notice your reaction to dealing with criticism
How do you respond to criticism?
If your current reactions are not helping – you or the situation – it is time to change them.
Insisting the other person is wrong or shouldn’t have criticised you is unlikely to create any change in either how you feel or how they act going forward.
If you blame them for your reaction (such as you feeling hurt or angry), it puts any responsibility for changing how you feel out of reach, which renders you a victim. You are the one reacting, which means you can choose not to react too.
When we hear judgement or criticism we can feel attacked. A reaction to feeling attacked is often a need to defend (fight), withdraw (flight) or be silent (freeze). All these are automatic fear responses.
If you are not in any physical danger, these fear responses to criticism are unnecessary and unlikely to help.
Choose your response
To avoid an automatic reaction next time you hear criticism, stop for a moment (take some deep breaths or count to 10) before you say anything. Maybe even say that you need to leave for a couple of minutes and come back when you feel calmer.
Take responsibility for your response by thinking about what you want (rather than what you don’t want). Ask for what you want or at least consider a response that is more likely to help you achieve it. You’ll feel more empowered and it could result in a more productive interaction.
Look for the request behind the criticism
Often criticism is focussed on a behaviour. What do you think the request is behind the criticism? What do you think the other person is looking for?
If you don’t know – ask. Gently and respectfully, ask them what it is that they really want.
Don’t focus on the judgement or the criticism. Do focus on what they are asking for and really listen to what they are saying (and perhaps what they are not saying). Use genuine questions to understand and help you uncover what they may feel is not working.
If what they would like is something you would like to do for yourself (and the relationship) and it feels in line with your values, tell them – it’ll improve the relationship. You might even want to ask for their help.
Give feedback and express how you feel
If the way the criticism was delivered was challenging, you might want to let the other person know their impact by using “I felt xxx” rather than “you made me feel xxx”.
Suggest how their message could have been communicated more constructively ie in a way that might have had a more positive impact on you.
Look for any truth in the criticism
Consider whether any of the feedback is true. If there is any validity in what has been said, take it on board and acknowledge it.
Ignore anything that you believe not to be true rather than being defensive.
If you feel the criticism is unfair, remember it is their opinion and they have a right to it. It may be different from yours, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
Know when to let go of the relationship
How criticism is delivered can say more about the person delivering it than the recipient.
If you genuinely believe the other person is trying to control or intimidate you, you need to ask yourself if the relationship is valuable enough for you to persevere with it and whether it would be better if it ended.
It’s a very personal decision, but you may want to seek professional help with making it, whether it concerns a personal or professional relationship.