“Don’t be so defensive”. Ever heard that complaint?  No one likes criticism and responding to it gracefully is difficult. Whether it’s from a boss or a friend, no one likes disapproval.  Critical remarks are particularly unpleasant when they come from family members.  With Christmas almost here, now is a good time to prepare to cope with unpleasant situations that can crop up at holiday gatherings. Today we are going to explain why it’s so easy to take offense and suggest an alternative, non-defensive approach to dealing with criticism.

What does being “defensive” mean?

The expression “being defensive”  typically refers to:
— an emotional reaction which is instantly argumentative reaction and
— interprets  a correction or comment which has been said about you or about something you did as a personal attack.
— A defensive reaction is one whose aim is to defend the correctness of the person’s position and not to examine the merits of the issue.
— It also implies that you don’t take criticism well and are unreasonable.
It should be also noted that calling someone defensive can be a way to manipulate a situation and pressure him/her to agree with a criticism.

Why are we defensive?

The ability not take a criticism personally and  to remain reasonable and stay focused on the issue is not easy, however.

Physiologically the reason we become defensive so easily is because of the way our brain is constructed.  Although criticism can be constructive, as humans we are wired to hear criticism as an attack. When we perceive a threat, we react, not from the reasonable part of our brain but from the primitive, limbic part which springs into action to defend and protect ourselves.  In behavioral terms defensiveness can be recognized by argumentativeness and personal counter attacks.

— The ability to keep an open mind depends on the level of self esteem and confidence a person has.
— Psychologically folks who have trouble keeping their cool hear criticism as a personal attack which exposes and stimulates the person’s primal fear of incompetency.
–Ultimately, irrational fears of one’s inadequacy is why folks respond unreasonably to criticism and become defensive.

A non-defensive* alternative to defensive reactions: Having an open mind.

You have probably heard the comment that minds are a lot like parachutes – they work better when they are open.  Indeed the key to non defensive responses to criticism is having an open mind.
— Rather than assuming that a criticism is an attack and false, assume that the negative
comment is an opportunity to learn, to grow and to improve one’s performance or skill.
— Rather than focusing on self-protection, stay focused on the truth or facts of the issue.
— Rather than responding our of fear or anger, engage the discussion with curiosity and a desire to discover a better way.


5 Tips for Dealing with Criticism Gracefully

1.  Take your time before responding and remind yourself:
— Recognize that a critical remark is a special challenge that requires special effort.
— You are a competent person but you don’t have to be perfect.
— Realize you’ll be sorry if you say what you’re thinking.
— Even if the comment was uncalled for, you want to respond gracefully.

2.  Don’t take the criticism as a personal attack.  Stay on the issue. Clarify the facts and get more information.  Ask yourself and ask the one who made the comment to explain exactly what s/he meant. Ask for more information.  Reality test the assertions.

3.  Frame criticism as useful feedback. Criticism can be helpful feedback which produces growth.

4.  Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  A mistake is no big deal and is an important way that we learn to do it better.

5.  Acknowledge different points of view and that it’s OK to disagree.  Sometimes folks just don’t agree and one need not continue to struggle until someone gives in.

Fortunately, although our initial internal reaction may be defensive and unpleasant, with greater awareness and practice, we can learn to delay and filter our actual responses and avoid unpleasant exchanges. In addition, we can actually learn from criticism and incorporate the new information into new and improved responses. A non-defensive mindset can help us transform painful moments of criticism into positive moments of personal growth.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  12 7 2011.

* With liberal acknowledgement to writings of Sharon Strand Ellison for the inspiration of these remarks.