Frequent and poorly delivered criticism is a breeder of conflict in personal and work relationships. Constant criticism tends to create a call-and-response pattern that’s none too pleasant and can slowly erode the relationship’s foundations. If you feel constantly criticized, here’s how to begin changing the dynamic by changing how you respond.
A participant at one of my recent conflict resolution workshops approached me afterward to ask my advice about responding to constant criticism. Bev and her husband are in a conflict dance that will feel familiar to some of you. The dance steps go like this:
- He criticizes even the smallest of actions (the length of time she chose to microwave dessert, for instance).
- Bev pushes back against what feels like constant and unfair judgment by telling him he needs to stop criticizing all the time.
- He comments on her inability to handle criticism.
- They go back and forth, trading judgments and jabs.
A strategy for responding to frequent criticism
One reason that criticism gets messy is that two issues get tangled: The feedback itself and the frequent and/or unpleasant delivery of that feedback. Whenever possible, de-couple the two issues. Here is a method I’ve taught to many of my coaching clients over the years:
1. Acknowledge receipt. Acknowledging isn’t the same as accepting or agreeing, though people often conflate the two. For now, keep the acknowledgement simple, like this: Thanks for the feedback. I’ll consider it. The sincerity you can muster for this statement will directly influence whether they accept the statement or continue to rankle you.
2. Cool off. Research suggests at least 30 minutes of distracting mental activity to cool down. Don’t engage when you’re still angry.
3. Decide to accept or reject. The receiver of feedback gets to choose whether or not any of it has merit. The benefit of cooling off first is that you have a better chance of seeing any wise nuggets in the other person’s rampant criticism. And if there aren’t any, you get to reject the gift of insults. If there is a good nugget in the feedback, decide what you can do with it and tell the other person.
4. Make steps 1-3 a habit. This demonstrates your willingness to consider feedback the other is offering. This the courageous step, by the way, the place where most will be tempted to throw in the towel. You may be thinking, Why should I have to keep listening to this crap? Why is it my burden to be the adult here? Well, because you are an adult. Keep your eyes on the long game — you are working toward a long-term solution, not short-term triumph.
5. Raise the second issue (frequency or unpleasant delivery) later. At a time completely separate, and in private, raise the second issue, the frequency or manner in which they criticize. You might say something like, I’d like to talk about something that’s been weighing on me. I’ve been working hard not to push back when you offer me feedback, and now I’d like you to consider some feedback from me. When can we talk about this for a few minutes?
I advised Bev to try the above strategy for a few weeks before going to Step 5. It does mean she’ll have to bite her tongue. But if this is the man she loves, a few weeks is a pretty small period in a lifetime relationship. It takes a while to change a habit that’s well-established.
And I suspect a few things may happen over those few weeks if she can successfully keep herself from tangling the two issues. He will probably begin to notice that she isn’t pushing back whenever he criticizes, and that may soften his habit a bit. She may discover there’s wheat (something beneficial) in all the criticism chaff. The bickering should decrease. And when she’s ready to raise the second issue, he’s much more likely to be willing to talk about it meaningfully.
In conflict, it’s tempting to make it the other person’s job to fix the problem. How much more empowering to remember that you can change the dance yourself.