Posted by: chrismaser | May 13, 2010


In order to make the following discussion as concrete as possible, I shall speak directly to you, the reader. How you personally handle criticism is related to the way in which you perceive yourself and how you want others to perceive you.

The way in which you perceive yourself is your “self-image,” which consists of the beliefs you hold about yourself and the values based on those beliefs. Your self-image—like mine and every one else’s—was bestowed on you by your parents, siblings, and family, as well as your teachers, peers, and friends. If you were fortunate enough to be treated well by these people, you developed positive, healthy self-esteem, which translates into a positive sense of self-worth and a corresponding self-image. Unfortunately, the converse is also true.

The way in which you would like others to perceive you is your “public image” or “persona,” which you, as well as almost everyone else, try to make as favorable as possible. You may, for example, want others to see you as authentic, knowledgeable, patient, funny, and so on. To achieve your desired public image, you make your actions reflect these characteristics to the very best of your ability.

The problem arises when people criticize you because they are making judgments (projections) about either your self-image or your public image or both, and such judgments most likely conflict with your own perception of your self-image and/or public image. Being called a liar, for example, may cause you to become defensive because you see yourself as honest, especially if you were raised to be so. If, therefore, some truth exists in the accusation, you become even more defensive in trying to reinstate your favorable public and/or self-image.

Verbal criticism that is perceived as negative can be responded to in at least six ways: by (1) withdrawing, (2) denying, (3) ignoring, (4) rationalizing, (5) counterattacking, and (6) responding non-defensively.

Withdrawing is when you opt to accept criticism silently by simply leaving the room without a response. Although the conflict may not escalate, you may feel that you lost your self-respect as well as self-esteem because you chose not to defend yourself.

Denying is a form of defense against criticism in that you flatly deny the accusation of your critic. Such denial is rampant in our federal, state, and local governments these days and thus offers many examples of the dynamic.

Ignoring criticism is not the same as withdrawing from it. You can only ignore criticism when you are truly not bothered by it, when you recognize it for what it is, consider the source, and let it pass without taking ownership. Although you can retain your self-respect and self-esteem, you forgo the chance to correct your critic’s misperception.

Rationalizing as a strategy of defense is to admit the merit of the criticism, then quickly follow with an explanation of why you did whatever you did. Unfortunately, by the time you conclude your rationalization, the other person has usually had ample time to find all the holes in it.

Counterattacking to divert the negative attention from yourself to the criticizer and their faults only escalates the conflict and avoids the real issue.

Responding non-defensively means that you listen calmly and non-judgmentally to your attacker, who clearly feels a need to communicate something to you for whatever reason. By listening calmly and non-judgmentally, you not only learn what the perceived problem is but also begin disarming your protagonist. This obviously is the most productive and rewarding way of dealing with criticism, but it demands the greatest maturity and effort on your part.

The following steps are useful in responding to criticism non-defensively: listen, acknowledge, ask questions, paraphrase, and agree with the truth.

Listen. Although we tend to take criticism at face value, automatically assuming that we are somehow in error, there may be a lot of buried feelings beneath the spoken words (such as fear of a new idea, unwanted change, or any number of other things). It is thus critical to listen, really listen with an open mind (which means without forming any kind of mental rebuttal), to what is being said, after which it is appropriate to ask questions. If you are concerned about clarification of certain points as you try to find out what feelings are hidden by the angry words, quietly write the points down to remember them, but do not interrupt the speaker. Once these feelings have been ferreted out and addressed, it is much easier to determine the real issue and resolve the conflict.

Acknowledge. In the name of human decency, indicate to your protagonist that you recognize the criticism. Acknowledging the criticism does not mean that you either agree with or accept its content; it only means that you recognize the other party’s right to have opinions and feelings that merit consideration, which allows your criticizer to feel heard and reduces the level of their anger.

Be careful about your tone of voice and your body language (such as your facial expressions and gestures) when acknowledging criticism because any hint of sarcasm or patronization may only serve to put you on the defense and make your protagonist angrier. If, however, you are truly sincere about resolving the conflict, then your words will have the ring of authenticity and signal that it is acceptable to discuss the other party’s feelings.

Elevate the level of the discussion. Shift the focus from the points of conflict toward the fundamental principles underlying your perception of the issue. Once both parties can agree on the principles, the conflict is usually much easier to resolve. You can do this most easily if you anticipate areas in which you might be questioned or challenged.

Always tell the truth. Remember, there is only truth and untruth; there is no such thing as a “half-truth” or “some version of the truth.” If you try to bend the truth, you will almost always be caught. Be totally honest, even if your position is momentarily weakened. In the spirit of truth, learn to say, “I don’t know” when you really do not, and follow it with “but I will find out for you if you wish.”

Be friendly. When the questioner is hostile, it is critical that you respond as if the person was a frightened friend asking for help. Any attempt to defame the questioner with sarcasm not only will draw the audience’s immediate sympathy to the questioner but also will put you in a position of becoming that which you are against. The more in error you feel your opponent to be, the more incumbent it is on you to act with principle and dignity.

Show your opponent a new way of viewing the issue. Consensus on the fundamental principles may be reached by discussing the issue from your opponent’s point of view. Then point out that there may in fact be more agreement between your opponent’s point of view and yours than they thought.

In other words, change their view of the situation from black or white to gray, but do so in a helpful, informative manner. Never become argumentative. If you seem to be denigrating the opposition, whoever is listening will argue back mentally, and hostility may well return.

Ally yourself with positive symbols. Along with your presentation of the underlying principles, be sure to include the emotional aspect of the discussion because this is most likely where your opponent’s fear lies. Controversial issues inevitably involve symbols, and the side most effectively associated with positive symbols (such as law, human dignity, freedom of choice, and so on) is more likely to prevail.

Refute the opposition tactfully. If you are in a public meeting, you will need to counter the criticism that may already have convinced the audience that your opponent is correct, but this must be done in a non-threatening manner. Avoid any statement that might be misconstrued as a personal attack on your opposition, your listeners, or their associations.

Listen carefully to all questions and repeat them aloud. Begin by making sure you understand the question correctly and that the audience not only understands the question (as much as possible) but also knows to which question you are responding.

Clear up any vagueness. If you did not clearly hear the entire question or if some part of it was obscure, clarify it before wasting everyone’s time by responding to something that was not asked. Define any vague terms or acronyms at this point to avoid confusion and unnecessary misunderstandings.

Ask questions. It is virtually impossible to uncover another person’s true feelings without asking questions. Most people will initially tell you what sounds good, but it is rarely the real reason. To ferret this out, you must ask questions, and your interest must be sincere. If, however, you are facing a hostile audience, be sure to both ask and receive questions from all parts of the audience, and do not allow one questioner to monopolize the available time.

Paraphrase. Repeat in your own words what you think the other person has said in order to come as close as possible to understanding what the other person really meant. This is critical because it’s common for one party to say something and the other party to hear or understand something completely different. Paraphrasing ensures, as much as is humanly possible, that this kind of misunderstanding is avoided by giving your protagonist the chance not only to clarify their own thoughts and feelings but also to correct your interpretation of what you heard.

Agree with the truth. If the criticism has merit, say so. While denying the “facts” is futile, agreeing with the facts does not mean that your protagonist has interpreted them correctly. Remember that a “fact” is still the interpretation of an event as seen through the eyes of the beholder. By the time this final step is reached, it is likely that the real issue will be on the table and you will be able to discuss possible solutions with the other party.

The following are some tips that may help you:

1. Remain calm because a true non-defensive response means that you have an equipoise of character while you are being criticized.

2. Criticism is not personal, so do not take it as such. Criticism is usually based on personal fear of some kind and is most often leveled by people who are afraid to take a personal risk themselves.

3. Smile, lean forward, nod or otherwise acknowledge that you are listening, and maintain eye contact. In this way, the speaker will know they are being heard, which is paramount if they are to be able to move beyond their attack.

4. Show your opponent respect even if they are yelling or cursing you. Acknowledge the anger and frustration by saying, “It is clear that you are really upset by this. I’m open to talking about it if you are.”

Answer directly. Always give simple answers to simple questions. If the question demands a lengthy reply, either ask permission to answer the question now or agree to discuss it later with anyone interested.1

Albeit, you are not always being criticized, the very notion of criticism raises questions about how you must act and how much of yourself it is appropriate to disclose.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

• The Challenges Of Leadership

• Dealing With Anxiety

• Use Of Power

• Criticism In The Form Of Projection

• Being And Disclosing Yourself

• The Zen Of Perfection

• Honesty With Followers

• Understanding Silence

• Understanding The Need To Be Heard

• Establishing Your Boundaries

• Dealing With The Uncommitted

• Accepting Slow Or Delayed Results

• Learning Your Limits


  1. (1)The foregoing discussion is based in part on: Jean Marsh. Keep Your Eyes & Ears Open and Your Pen Ready! The Toastmaster 63 (1997):20-21 and (2) White Eagle. Spiritual Unfoldment 4: The Path to the Light. The White Eagle Publishing Trust, New Lands, England. (1988).

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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