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Responding to Criticism Without Being Defensive

Sharon Ellison -- By asking questions thoughtfully, stating our position, and setting limits when needed, we can build our own wisdom and garner respect from others.

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 judgment. 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 judgmental, and b) respond with a blend of firmness and openness even when someone speaks harshly to us or to them.

Couples: Avoid the "Pay-Back" When One of You "Gets Critical"

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