Receiving Criticism without Defensiveness

Receiving Criticism without Defensiveness

University of California-Davis logo There are untold ways that people show disapproval. Some may raise their voices, others roll their eyes, and yet others use sarcasm. From bouts of anger to withdrawal and pouting, this list is indeed long. How do we react when we are the object of someone’s reproach? Do we become defensive? I would venture to say that we are most likely to feel self-protective when the person who is showing his or her disapprobation is someone we care about. Feelings of defensiveness are likely to result in a similar response, with our own show of displeasure. If this cycle is not reversed, accusation, counter-accusation and resentment intensify.

Marshall Rosenberg explains that we can overcome defensiveness when we stop hearing criticism (even if it was intended) and begin, instead, to listen for unmet needs. It is so liberating to see in other people’s behavior and communication a set of unfulfilled needs rather than personal attacks. He calls this “receiving empathically.”

Say a person shouts at you, uses sarcasm or manipulative tactics, or says things that you may experience as inconsiderate and hurtful. As long as you focus on your wounded feelings, the chances of a thoughtful response greatly diminish. Most likely, you end up saying something spiteful and insensitive back, and the defensive-aggressive cycle continues. Or, you may be left not knowing what to say and be accused of refusing to talk. Either way, it seems like a losing proposition.

Rosenberg suggests that instead of focusing on how we are receiving a message, we can concentrate on the person’s implicitly suggested unmet needs (e.g., desire for acceptance, safety, order, appreciation, contribution, trust, etc.). We can thus break the cycle of defensiveness as we communicate back to others what we sense they are feeling (e.g., fear, hurt, worry) and needing. Rosenberg explains, “I think you’ll find people to be less threatening if you hear what they’re needing rather than what they’re thinking about you” (p. 95).

We may become overly sensitive when we permit ourselves to analyze how others are expressing themselves toward us. In essence, we are burdening ourselves with other people’s imperfect communication patterns. If your intentions have ever been misunderstood—or if you have ever done the same when hearing others—you know that even in the best of circumstances effective communication is not easy. For me, the “aha moment” came when I realized that someone’s ineffective—and at times dysfunctional—communication is more about him or her than about what I may have done or said. The concept may seem deceptively simple.

-Gregorio Billikopf
University of California

4.16.2012