Tips and Techniques to Deal With Verbal Criticism

by Harwant Khush, PhD, Research Consultant, Tero International

"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots."
- Frank A. Clark

Verbal criticism is a ubiquitous fact of our daily lives. Hardly a day goes by when we do not hear cynical remarks, sarcastic comments, or just plain negative feedback about our actions and behavior from colleagues, superiors or from family members. If communicated properly and in a positive tone, criticism can definitely have a positive impact on the behavior and performance of its receiver.

However, it can also have a devastating impact if delivered with negative connotation that gives the impression of undermining the self-worth, dignity and self-esteem of its recipients. Insulting, offensive and disparaging remarks should be dealt properly, without destroying the relationship between the criticizer and the receiver (Diffusing Verbal Criticism).

Our societal and personal values have long entrenched the philosophy that we should learn to tolerate criticism rather than respond. This wonderful rhyme from our childhood days brings back memories as we recite, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We also recall the occasions when told not to "rock the boat". These cultural and classical practices reflect the view that it is best to remain silent, withdraw from the situation, and not to retaliate. These techniques are based on the assumption that with passing time, issues would resolve and the criticizer would relent. In reality, these methods do not work. The best approach is to learn how to deal with criticism rather than suppress it so that we can become an effective and productive member of the society.

One of the latest theories to deal with criticism is based on John Gottman's work on communication, negotiation and conflict resolution (John Gottman). This approach stresses that in the face of criticism do not become defensive. This is because, "it is impossible to defend completely against all attacks or criticisms... most of us are very far from perfect - we are quite flawed and we know it". Defending ourselves in the face of criticism is simply a waste of our time and energy, because "you are invalidating them, so they escalate the criticism. If you can't hear them the first time, they say it louder" (Radical Non-Defensiveness). In defensive approach, the criticism gets harsher, personal and as a result, all the concerned parties suffer.

The question is how to escape the vicious cycle of criticism and at the same time not be defensive? The most popular and contemporary techniques to handle criticism are to be non-defensive. The basic tenets of this approach are to understand the issue, find some truth in what the criticizer has to say, work out a plan and come to an agreement.

Non-defensive approach is elaborated by David Burns in his article on Five Secrets of Effective Communication (The Five Secrets...). The five secrets are to:


Listen to the criticizer and try to understand the reasons for criticism. Attempt to comprehend why the person is furious. Is it because you did not perform up to standard or is it an outlet for some deep buried hostility?

While listening to the verbal message, try to understand the non-verbal cues. Observe the facial expression, gestures, and body language of the criticizer. It is equally vital to observe the volume, pitch and tone of the voice. Make sure to maintain eye contact with the criticizer during this process.


Recognize and acknowledge that the criticizer has an opinion that is different from yours. It does not mean that you agree or accept the other person's viewpoint; it just means that you have differences as you view the situation, and those differences need be worked out.

The person being criticized may say, "I understand you have a different approach to tackle the problem; it is not the way I perceive it." Try to find out the areas of disagreement by asking questions to gather information.

Gather Information

Do not come to any judgment until you have all of the information. Inform yourself by asking multiple questions as to "how, what, why and when" in regards to the contentious matter.

This information is to focus on the problem and put it in proper perspective.

However, the recipient should pay equal attention to his/her tone while asking questions. Do not ask questions in a snappy, irritable or a complaining tone as this kind of response may defeat the purpose of solving issues.


Rearticulate and summarize the criticizer's comments in your own words. It helps the criticizer to understand whether the message is going through as intended. It also helps to clarify and have a focus on the real issue.

Pronoun "I" is preferable instead of "you" in summarizing the comments. Phrase questions in the format such as, "I realize," or, "I feel the problem to be..." Do not use sentences with "you" e.g., "you make me so mad, or you always annoy me." Make sure that you address the other person with respect and with a positive attitude. According to Dr. Burns, "You find something genuinely positive to say to the other person, even in the heat of a battle. You convey an attitude of respect even though you may feel very angry with the other person." This approach will diffuse tension and permit further conversation.

Agree with Facts and Come to Terms

Look at the facts and try to separate the fact from the fiction. Agree and accept if there is any truth in some of the accusations. Try to work out a plan on how the concerned parties can maintain relationship and move on whether or not the criticism is valid. Learn to address any effective criticism and not be in denial.

Criticism is always going to be a pervasive reality in our lives. However, we can learn how to deal with hostile and confrontational situations if we have the proper knowledge and techniques. The non-defensive approach outlined above is one of the best methods to deal with a confrontational situation. This approach is fundamental to enhance interpersonal communication skills and to be a successful partner in any organization or a corporation. Now, instead of being in denial and brushing off the criticism by saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," the best approach should be; "let us sit down and talk".

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