Handling unfair criticism: 4 strategies.
“All communication is either a loving response or a cry for help”,Tony Robbins.
Our body’s priority, above and beyond gaining pleasure, is to avoid pain. This has been shown in economics research (e.g. by Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman): loss aversion trumps the possibility of gain. It also means that we’re naturally inclined to react to a cry for help whether our own or someone else’s.
What is criticism really about?
When we receive criticism, we tend to go into self-defence mode because we experience pain on some level. Our body then tries to find a solution to remove the pain. The problem we’re trying to solve on a fundamental level is: “How can I stop this pain from happening?”; “How can I make sure this pain doesn’t happen again?”. This is because, from a survival perspective, continuous pain means continuous injury, which means death.
But what if you practised mindfulness for a moment and paused before reacting? Pausing before reacting is the essence of any mindfulness practice as explained by personal development giants from the Buddha to Eckhart Tolle. And what if in that pause, you asked yourself a different question, like “What else could this mean (other than an attack)?”
Looking at a deeper level of meaning, a criticism may be seen as a disguised complaint which, in turn, usually carries a request – a request for a need to be met. David Richo, author of How to be an Adult in Relationships talks about the 5 As: Attention; Appreciation; Allowing; Acceptance; and Affection (which in a business setting could be translated into warmth/openness to others). Of course, knowing this is one thing...
Moving through criticism to move past it
Once an automatic physiological response has arisen i our body, it's impossible to suppress it. However, if you acknowledge your own autonomic nervous system response and allow it to diminish and settle, you have a much better chance of stopping it from spiralling out of control.
Then, you have an opening: you have access to higher cognitive functions again and can use your reasoning to reframe the criticism and identify the request underneath by asking: which of the 5 As is being required of me? If you did respond this way, would that give you greater resilience and bring more spaciousness to the situation to allow for a calm resolution? What if you responded by giving that person a moment of attention or expressed your appreciation for them before dealing with the surface complaint? How much easier could your interaction be and how much more quickly could a resolution be reached? Try it out and see.
If you want to take this to an even greater level of refinement, get to know what the person’s two driving values are (safety; variety; significance; connection;
growth; contribution). For example, do they value connection (and need warmth from you) or do they value significance and need to feel appreciated? Perhaps, they value variety and challenge but need to have your permission (and need allowing); or they value safety (and need to feel acceptance). For a moment in time, they have given you the power to meet one of their fundamental human needs. Respond wisely.
If you’re masterful, an initial criticism may turn into an apology and praise without your having had to take any particular action other than be present. Never underestimate the power of presence to whatever is going on in the moment. The most important leadership quality.
How to deal with unfair criticism: think like a martial artist
Sometimes, people can lash out aggressively (which may have nothing to do with you or your relationship with them) and you need to shield yourself somehow. So, if you've established that this has happened and need a little protection, I would recommend thinking like a martial artist: resolve the tension and shift the energy back to neutral. You must handle your emotional response either during or after, but in the heat of the moment, here are a few strategies, as examples.
WARNING: These are suggestions to give you ideas for how you might handle it rather than something you would reproduce exactly. The idea is to stay present and use this as a shield in the moment. It is not a long term solution. The context, your overall intention or goal and your personal needs (as well as your assessment of the other person's) inform what you would do in reality.
Let’s say someone comes up to you after a presentation and says: “I didn’t like your talk, I think your public speaking skills are terrible” and you sincerely feel that this is unfair.
Resolve the tension and shift the energy by:
Standing your ground by saying something like: “Hey, thanks for your feedback. I really enjoyed giving the talk but I might reflect on it.”
The “might” is crucial because it keeps you in control of your experience and creates distance between you and them.
Deflecting by saying something like: “Yes, it’s such a tough business we’re in isn’t it?”
(deflecting onto the bigger picture and emphasising connection over separation)
Redirecting it back at them by saying something like: "Thanks for pointing that out. Is this something that you’ve struggled with yourself?
(Say this with genuine curiosity in which case they may start talking about themselves. If said with sarcasm it may start to look like a retaliation…)
Posturing a little (through feigned stupidity) by saying something like: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Could you repeat what you said?”
Few people will.
I wouldn’t recommend retaliating in any situation that is not physically violent, except through humour that can help to defuse the situation. The only exception is if facts have been misrepresented, putting you professionally at risk, and you want to correct them on the spot. But beware, as this can just be a way to draw you into a confrontation or make you lose your composure and create a drama cycle.
Remember that these are just examples. The quality you imbue your words with is more important than the words themselves as less than 93% of our communication is verbal. The WAY you say whatever you say is more important than the words themselves.
Go to minute 3.40 of the video to see a demonstration of the tone I would use (everyone has their own style, of course)
Pause, tune in to your body, acknowledge what’s going on and let wisdom guide your response - always from a place of presence and deep compassion for yourself and others.