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The Only 2 Keys You Need To Take Criticism Without Getting Defensive

photo: Admit One

When someone criticizes you, whether it’s your boss or partner or friend, it’s hard not to take it personally or get defensive. Usually that’s because the criticism makes you feel threatened or judged by the person making the comment. But when you defend against the criticism without even hearing the person out or stopping to think whether it is warranted, you really are giving the criticism more power because you make it into a bigger deal than it is.

Of course, I’m not talking about someone who is constantly criticizing, always putting you down, or verbally abusive. Those behaviors need to be stopped. But if you immediately get defensive when someone gently points out an error or problem on your part, you might be interested in a couple of easy steps to helpĀ  you put down your guard.

To overcome your defensiveness, just remember two things: (1) clarity, and (2) then act accordingly.


When someone gives you constructive criticism, think about getting clarity. Really understand what she is saying. Ask questions, and try to understand where she’s coming from.

If your spouse says, “You never have dinner ready on time,” it comes across as an accusation, and that might make you defensive. So you want to understand where he’s coming from.

  • First of all, do you both have the same definition of “on time”?
  • Why is it important to him that dinner be ready on time? Is his reason compelling? Does he have to be somewhere later, does he just like structure, or is it something else?
  • Maybe he likes having dinner ready on time because to him that shows him that you care and that you’re taking care of him.

As you can see, there are all sorts of places where that criticism could be coming from, and if you just get defensive in your response instead of seeking clarity, you make the argument bigger, and you don’t find a solution – and you’re likely to have the same disagreement again.

At work, if your boss says a project you completed was done all wrong, resist the urge to get defensive or pass the buck. Instead, get clarity.

  • Did you and your boss have a similar understanding of the nature of the project?
  • What parts are right and what parts are wrong?
  • Was there a miscommunication on his part? An error on your part? What really happened?

By getting more information when you receive the criticism, you can get a better understanding of what your boss is really saying, and you’ll know exactly what the problem is. But if you respond instead with, “I did my best!” and then stomp back to your desk, you’re likely to just make the same errors again.

Act accordingly

Once you get a clear understanding of the criticism that was given to you, you can decide how you want to act – if at all. Maybe, now that you know where it was coming from, you do want to change your actions. And maybe you don’t!

In the first example, if you ask your husband several questions to try to see where his criticism is coming from, and the best you can determine is that he likes a rigid schedule and wants you to keep the same rigid schedule, but you really can’t find any reason for dinner to be ready at six on the dot, you can choose not to take any action. Or, of course, figure out a way you can both be happy with the dinner schedule. The point is that the criticism may or may not be valid, and now that you have gathered more information, you are better equipped to know whether it warrants your attention.

The same is true with the situation with your boss. It’s not very helpful for him to just say you did a project all wrong. But when you ask more questions instead of getting defensive, you might find that actually most of it was done right and it just requires a little tweaking, or you misunderstood the project and now can do it right, or maybe the only part that’s wrong was someone else’s contribution and it had nothing to do with you. Regardless, asking questions and then acting is your key to dealing with the criticism.

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t take criticism well, try practicing these two easy steps instead of getting mad, feeling hurt, or being defensive. You’ll probably find you can improve your relationships, even if the criticism wasn’t even warranted in the first place!