Responding Non-Defensively to Criticism

In the last two posts we’ve been examining the communication climate. Just as in the real world, it is weather trends that add up to climate. Defensiveness is often the cause of stormy weather and too many storms can ultimately leads to an inhospitable climate. Our last post dealt with ways we can chase away clouds on the communication horizon by lowering the defensive reactions in others. In today’s post, the Saying What Matters lady will offer some guidelines for dealing with our own defensiveness when criticism sends gale force winds our way.

Seek more information ….

  • Remember the post on the three-step perception checking tool? If you haven’t seen it or if you need a refresher, pop back and have a look. That post has been one of the most popular on the blog!
  • Though it would seem obvious, it bears saying – we need to understand what the other person is saying before we respond. More than a few posts on this blog have emphasized the tendency to hear what we think is being said rather than what is actually said.
  • Many people have a difficult time listening to criticism because they are labouring under the belief that to listen means to accept the judgement of what is being said. Once they accept, they will be forced to do something they don’t want to do. Having this belief makes raising the defensive barricades inevitable.
  • If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this – listening is simply that – listening. It bears no obligation to accept, to be defined by or to run off and change your life based on what someone else feels or thinks.

Bruce Witzel photo

Let’s step outside the dry how-to formula for some role play. Dave and Tara are leaving a restaurant after having dinner with friends. Dave has been following the Saying What Matters blog and is trying to engage in more effective communication.

Tara: I hope you had a good time in there because I certainly didn’t.

(Old Dave would have said: You always do this. Go ahead; ruin everything by bitching and complaining. Nothing is ever good enough for you.)

New Dave thinks: whatever Tara is feeling doesn’t define me so there is no need to get defensive. The important thing right now is to listen and figure out what she means.

New Dave says: I can hear you’re upset. Tell me what’s wrong.

Ask the other to be specific ….

  • It is helpful to engage in some investigative work when attempting to understand what another is saying.
  • Ask the question – Can you give me an example?
  • It’s important to be sincere. People bent on letting us know where we’ve missed the mark are highly tuned into the crap meter. We’re striving for curiosity here. It won’t work if we really don’t want to understand.
  • People often deliver criticism in the vaguest terms. There can be a few reasons for this. It may seem a less hurtful way to proceed or it may be that it is difficult to express specifics in a painful situation. When we really want to understand, this behaviour can be frustrating. Keep conveying the need for information and ask intelligent, guessing questions.

Tara: You’re just so controlling all the time.

(Old Dave: Oh great, here it comes – poor, hard-done by Tara pushed around by mean old Dave. Don’t you ever get sick of singing that tune?)

New Dave thinks: Those are sweeping statements. I’m going to have to work to get her to be more specific.

New Dave says: Can you give me an example of how I was controlling?

Bruce Witzel photo 2

Paraphrase the speaker’s ideas ….

  • Use active listening to clarify and amplify the message.
  • And remember – there is no need to engage in a guessing game. It is up to the other person to be specific when asked.

Tara: It’s all about you, you, you … all the time. You don’t give anyone else a chance.

(Old Dave: Is this because I didn’t want to spend the whole night listening to you holding court about your promotion or is it because I didn’t want to split the bill when they ordered three drinks each and we only had one? And that makes me a cheap bastard, right?)

New Dave thinks: Whoa – I’m ten steps ahead of her and what I’m assuming is really pushing my buttons. I’ve got to slow down. She’s still not being specific but I’ll take an educated guess.

New Dave says: It sounds like you saw me as overwhelming in some way. Can you tell me what I did?

Tara: You interrupted me when I was telling them about my promotion at work, you talked for at least fifteen minutes about politics and you didn’t let anyone else get a word in, you arbitrarily told the waiter none of us wanted dessert and you were pretty cutting when Jeff suggested we split the bill.

New Dave thinks: whew – ask and you shall receive!

New Dave says: That’s a lot. I interrupted you, monopolized the conversation, was highhanded and lacked tact over the whole bill thing?

Tara: (eyeing New Dave suspiciously) Ya, that about covers it.

Montreal - Bruce Witzel photo

Ask how the critic would like you to change ….

  • And accompany the request with congruent nonverbal behaviour

New Dave thinks: I’m curious about what she wants from me. It doesn’t mean I’ll be forced to do anything. I’d just like to know.

New Dave says: (with a genuine tone and open body language) How would you have liked me to do things differently?

Tara: I just want you to show a bit of sensitivity and remember that you’re not the only one who wants to talk, or have an opinion or make a decision.

Ask about the consequences of your behaviour….

  • This is a good way to see how actions that seem legitimate to you may cause issues for others.

New Dave thinks: It would be good to know if all of this is going to have repercussions for her because that will definitely bounce back on me.

New Dave says: What’s the fall out?

Tara: I was embarrassed by how you acted. I feel like I won’t be enthusiastic to go out with Jeff and Carol again, assuming they still wanted to be our friends after tonight, and that makes me sad because I like them and I really wanted all of us to be friends.

Ask if there is anything else ….

  • Asking this might help uncover other issues or the real issue underlying the surface criticism.
  • This is especially useful if you intuit that the emotional level invested in the criticism is out of proportion to the issue at hand.

New Dave thinks: Tara still seems really upset. I wonder if there’s more to this.

New Dave says: Is there anything else going on, Tara?

Tara: (after a significant pause) Sometimes I get the feeling that you aren’t all that excited about my promotion.

New Dave thinks: Shit, I wish she didn’t know me so well.

New Dave says : I guess you’ve got me there. I want to be and most of the time, I am. Then I get down about lagging behind on my own career plans and I feel like I can’t listen to how great you’re doing.

Memorial Sculpture Garden - Bruce Witzel photo

Agree with the critic ….

  • We can agree with the critic and still maintain the integrity of our own position.
  • We can agree with the critic without apologizing for doing things we don’t think we need apologize for.
  • The Saying What Matters lady knows that sounds like pie in the sky but it is possible.
  • How?
  • Agree with the facts. After all, one can’t really argue with the facts. If one was late, one was late.
  • Agree with the critic’s perspective by saying and meaning – I understand why you feel that way.

New Dave thinks: It was wrong the way I cut her off and I do get how she feels.

New Dave says: I did interrupt you when you were talking about your promotion, Tara, and I’m sorry about that. I understand why you didn’t have the greatest time tonight and I will be thinking about everything you’ve said.

Tara: (grabbing Dave’s hand as they walk) Thanks for that. I was probably overreacting to things because I really want you to be happy for me … about the promotion.

New Dave’s thinks: I’ve got to deal with my insecurities so I don’t end up raining on Tara’s parade. I’m passionate about politics but it wouldn’t hurt to temper that and let other people express their opinions, too. And it wasn’t fifteen minutes – more like ten. Tara is overreacting about the dessert issue – no one wanted dessert after that dinner. Tara’s so invested in wanting Jeff and Carol to be our friends. She doesn’t see that every time we’re out with them, he does the same thing when it comes to paying the bill. He has to know on some level it isn’t fair. But, I could have handled the whole thing more tactfully and before we go out with them again, I will discuss how I feel about this with Tara so we can come up with a strategy.

To sum up ….

The Saying What Matters lady apologizes for such a lengthy post. Tara and Dave ended up stretching things out. In a good way! I’m sure we can all see that old Dave’s defensive responses would have amped up the storm to hurricane force winds. By listening and accepting Tara’s criticism (while not allowing himself to become defensive or letting Tara’s feelings and thoughts define him), Dave managed to affirm Tara’s feelings, uncover a deeper issue within their relationship and learn some important things about himself. Win, win.

So – get curious. How often does meeting criticism with defensiveness work? Is it possible to take a chance by keeping the defences down long enough to listen?

Lake Tahoe - Bruce Witzel photo

About francisguenette

Writer, blogger and author of the Crater Lake Series.
This entry was posted in Communication, Communication skills, Counselling, Mental health, Photography, Relationship, Self Help, Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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