How and When to Respond to Criticism

You don't have to respond to criticism. It's not a requirement. In fact, quite often the best response is to simply thank the other person for their honesty or to say nothing at all.

Responding to criticism is a choice--your choice. If you choose to respond, you need to do more than focus on what to say. You should give some thought both to how you will say it and when.

Make it constructive

If you're certain you should respond, your first consideration is to make that response constructive. People are not machines. They do not always respond logically using all of the same criteria of importance as you. They come with their own worries, biases, and valid concerns. If you want to resolve the issue, you first need to be heard. If you choose to engage, it's your job to get through the barriers that inhibit communication.

You do this in two ways. First, you have to create a constructive response. This may seem obvious, but much communication in a conflict is done in the heat of the moment, when emotions are high. People pepper their speech with side points, for example, which may be experienced as jabs, not to mention direct insults and attacks on the other person rather than on their arguments or the issues at hand.

It's important to stay calm, and the best way to do that is to practice what you want to say beforehand so that your message is not drowned in acrimony and negative feelings. Remember, you are responsible or yourself. It's your job to remain in control, not the other person's job to keep you that way.

Traffic light

Once you have decided on what to say, the second consideration is when to say it. You should pick a time when you think you can stay in control and aren't distracted by the other stresses of life.

Psychologist Dr. Christine Padesky created a traffic light analogy to help her patients visualize the best time to respond to criticism. In the green light state, we feel relaxed. We are in a good mood and have generally positive thoughts. The red light state is of course the opposite of this, when we are tense, anxious, and experiencing negative thoughts.

It doesn't matter whether these negative thoughts and feelings are directed toward the present conflict or not. You may be worried about a sick parent or your child's performance at school or something else entirely. The important point is that when you are in the red light state, you are not in a position to engage constructively with additional negative feelings.

Remember, people are not machines. That includes you. You are much more likely to "take the bait" and respond to attacks and insults when you begin the conversation feeling stressed or bothered. It's important to pick a time when you know you will be able to bear the emotional load of a difficult conversation.

Rick