Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Taking Criticism Is A Tough Thing To Do

November 20, 2000

Do you know anyone with paper thin skin? Is it your spouse - or is it you? Taking criticism is hard because it requires a most difficult skill - the ability to control one’s emotions and thoughts while listening and understanding what the critic is saying.

Failure to take criticism causes a breakdown in the communication and problem-solving process. It is frustrating for the other party who feels they are raising a legitimate issue in an constructive way and hoping for a dialogue. Instead what he or she gets is an argument, a counter-attack, anger, defensiveness or emotional withdrawal and disengagement.

Emotional control. Arousal caused by criticism interferes with the ability to listen. The "threatened" individual is flooded with emotion or thoughts that interfere with listening carefully to what is being said. His or her reaction is based on faulty assumptions and their response is off the mark. The discussion goes nowhere.

I teach listening skills as part of my couples counseling. I get an immediate read on how difficult the communication problems are to correct by the listeners ability to detach, understand and empathize with the other person’s point of view.

Even if the "criticism" complaint or issue being brought up is seen as unreasonable, untrue or distorted in some way, can the recipient recognize that the other person’s perception is a legitimate concern and needs to be understood? The mere fact that the critic believes it makes it important. It takes emotional control to listen to a differing point of view and hear the person out.

Learning to be patient. I teach a conversational etiquette that requires an awareness of who has the floor, a willingness to hear and understand the other person, and giving an adequate summary of the problem being raised before requesting a chance to respond to the issue. Even if the process goes smoothly in the counseling office, the real test of this skill comes at home under tense and emotional conditions.

Some people mistakenly believe that by being a good listener they are agreeing with the things being said. That is not true. All that is being demonstrated is that they understand what is being said, not that it is being agreed to. Also, having confidence that his or her turn to speak will come and that the listening role will be reciprocated, relaxes the listener so they do not interrupt or try to take over until the other party has finished their thoughts.

Positive intent. However, there is a good chance the criticism is valid or that, at a minimum, a kernel of truth to what is being said. The critic obviously cares about the situation and is trying to repair a problem. What is being offered is a chance to learn about oneself and/or the relationship. The way others see us is an important source of feedback about reality. Confronting a problem is an invitation to personal growth and to an improved relationship.

Here is a list of "do’s" and "don’t’s" in dealing with criticism.

- Control your emotion. Be careful on negative body language, sarcasm or hostile and angry responses. Hurt or brooding silence is not productive. Don’t interrupt. Don’t give your side of the issue until you have shown the other party you understand their point.

If you are aroused to the point where you can’t listen effectively, ask for a break and some time to assimilate what is being said. It is either that or asking to be the speaker. The other party will then have to be a good listener for you. If you have listened to and understood, you might have a better chance at being a good listener yourself.

- Ask questions. Paraphrase or summarize the point being said in the most caring way you can. Draw your critic out. Ask for examples. Clarify the problem.

- Take criticism into account. Immediate retorts and canned answers that don’t take into account what has just been said cause your critic to redouble their efforts to get through to you. Answers that are not responsive are a signal to the critic to try to make their point again.

- Don’t quibble or get sidetracked. Even if the points being made are harsh, unfair, exaggerated, or even extreme, ignore the offensive part and try to find the underlying concern. The way it is being said isn’t the problem. The problem is the problem. In paraphrasing, deliberately use milder and more benign language to help stay on track.

- Find a way to agree with what is being said, at least a part of it. Don’t argue against feelings. People are entitled to their feelings whether you agree with them or not. If you disagree, listen carefully to what is being said. Work on forming a bridge from something you agree with them to the areas of disagreement.

If you feel you need to clarify your motives simply repeat your view without getting angry or defensive.