At Toastmasters, we get used to receiving a lot of constructive feedback and very rarely is it critical. This is how we learn and improve. However, at work or home, we may be subjected to angry, hurtful or destructive criticism. Being a good communicator or leader, requires knowing how to handle this in the appropriate way.

Why do we react to criticism as we do?

We all have a self image, which is based on our level of self esteem. We also have a public image, which is the person we wish others to see. For example, I may see myself as shy and introvert as my self image. On the other hand, the public image I wish others to see is someone who is confident and competent.

When you are criticised, this impacts on these two images, and depending on your beliefs and up-bringing, you will react in a certain way to re-instate those images.

You may

  • Withdraw not say anything and internalise the criticism to beat yourself up about it later
  • Rationalise it by making excuses. E.g. ‘Well I would have done a better report if I had had more time or the right information.’
  • Counterattack by throwing it back at the criticiser. E.g. ‘OK so I forgot your birthday, but you always forget mine and what about Mother’s Day?’

 None of these are likely to get you a successful outcome in the long term.

Or ideally, you may

  • Respond non-defensively. This requires five steps. It is not always easy to stay calm and maintain these in the face of an aggressive verbal attack, but vital if you want the best outcome.

The five steps of non-defensive response


It is important to actively listen and really hear the words they are saying, as well as what they might not be saying. It is hearing the emotion and whether there is a deeper issue going on. It is about staying focused and keeping eye-contact.


By acknowledging what you are hearing, you are showing you have listened. This does not mean you agree with them. It is about showing empathy. An example is ‘Yes, I can tell you are very upset about this.’ The tone of voice needs to be neutral.


Asking open questions allows you to delve deeper into what they really mean, what evidence they have, check understanding and if there is a deeper issue involved.


If you feed back to the criticiser in your own words, it again shows you have been listening and checks understanding. Is what you heard what they meant? Also it allows the other person to check if what they said is what they meant. E.g. you may say in a neutral tone: ‘What you are saying is that I am a hopeless manager’. They may respond by saying; ‘Well no, what I meant to say is you never give me any praise’.

Admit the truth

The criticiser may have delivered the feedback in an inappropriate or aggressive way. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth in it. You can sift through their offering to find any grains of truth. It is then about admitting and apologising to it. For example, ‘Yes you’re right; I did handle our meeting badly yesterday and I’m sorry’.

Having gone through these stages, you should be in a place to find a solution to the problem. It may take a few repeat steps to get to the best outcome.

This is adapted from a speech given on March 18th 2015 from the Interpersonal Communication Manual; advanced communication series.

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