What’s the best way to approach a person who reacts poorly to criticism?
It’s rarely effective to directly criticize someone for not taking
responsibility for their misbehavior. Quite the opposite. Especially if a
person is fiercely defensive when you blame them for culpable conduct,
their response probably won’t come anywhere close to what you’d hope.
Rather, they’re likely to archly defend themselves, project their blame
back onto you, search for something—anything—to attack you for, or
refuse to discuss the matter altogether. The words “defend, divert,
deny, and disengage” pretty much sum up their resistant behavioral
repertoire when they’re found fault with.
So, in such exasperating instances, what can you do? What (if anything)
will work in getting through to such obstinate individuals?
For starters, consider that anyone who's particularly insecure and
therefore possesses an extremely fragile ego, will—to safeguard their
vulnerability—react to a perceived attack defensively. From deep within,
they'll feel compelled to deflect all criticism. Back in 1986, I
published a resource for mental health professionals entitled
Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy. Many of the immediately
non-commonsensical change techniques described in this book are
refinements of what is commonly known as reverse or negative psychology.
And what unites these powerful but tricky and counter-intuitive methods
is that, when properly implemented, they can neutralize a client’s
resistance—vs. inadvertently bolstering it.
If you’re able to grasp how easily some people are taken hostage by
their psychological defense mechanisms, it makes perfect sense that the
only way you can reach them is, paradoxically, to validate them in what
you can’t help but regard as their wrongheaded perspective. Yet at the
same time you need to get across to them that you don’t—and can’t—agree
with what they did.
Appropriately executed, what such ironically supportive corroboration
does is not have you actually concur with their viewpoint but
acknowledge that it feels genuine to them. Erroneous or not, it’s held
with sincerity and, more than likely, with considerable conviction too.
In a word, from their mindset, it’s authentic. So to the degree that
addressing a person in this sympathetic way accurately reflects their
reality, they’ll be left with very little to defend against. And as a
consequence, taking such an accommodating approach will increase the
possibility that they’ll eventually admit to something that otherwise
they'd stubbornly refuse to.
Here, despite the aversive effect their actions have had on others,
you’re ascribing to them benign (vs. aggressive or malicious)
intentions. And frankly, it’s a lot easier for people generally to admit
wrongdoing when they’re not being “assaulted” for it. In a sense,
you’re joining them, showing that you can understand where they’re
coming from and what might have made their questionable behavior
irresistible. But at least implicitly, you’re also making it known that
you don’t see the situation as they do.
By way of qualification, it needs to be emphasized that you can’t
effectively intervene in this manner unless you’re able to appreciate
their admittedly self-interested motives benevolently. And in many cases
rising to that level of empathy or fellow feeling can be exceptionally
Below, I’ll provide an example, so that this “reframing” of your
criticism will seem, if not exactly conforming to conventional logic,
definitely reasonable psychologically.
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Let’s say that you have a family of three, one parent and two sons
(though they could be daughters as well): one son is age 12 and the
other 9. The younger son gets the lion’s share of parental attention
because he’s the baby of the family, and he’s afflicted with a serious
case of autism, such that he requires a lot more guidance. The older
son, feeling ignored, aggrieved, and resentful, takes out his
frustrations with what feels like an inequitable situation by constantly
picking on his brother—which, when confronted with his hostile,
acting-out behavior—he adamantly denies.
But what if the parents approached the 12-year-old by saying, “Look, we
think what’s going on is that your brother gets much more attention than
you do, and that’s really upsetting and feels unfair to you, no?" Then,
after the child almost certainly agrees with this verdict and takes the
opportunity to add on to his complaints, "And that may be why you’re
constantly picking on him, ’cause it’s the only way you know how to tell
us how unjust all this seems to you.”
Since the parents’ sympathetic response expresses compassionate concern
for the older child’s predicament, it’s likely to open up productive
communication with the child. The older son isn’t being directly accused
of unacceptable behavior but instead is having his discontent correctly
and caringly identified for him.
As a result of such empathic communication, the child risks very little
in accepting this evaluation of his sibling conflict. The parents’ focus
isn’t on punishing him (which could make him feel that much worse about
himself and so lead to more angry, acting-out behavior) but on
sympathetically understanding his situation so that he can safely begin
to share his deeper anxieties about the neglect, or even rejection, he’s
been experiencing. His bad behavior toward his brother is reframed as a
form of protest, and the parents’ spotlight isn’t on his badness as
such but the probable hurt feelings precipitating his vengeful behavior.
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Note that the older son’s continuing to behave in this unacceptable way
will be decreased because it’s been “called out”—and compassionately
rather than critically. Doubtless, the parents would also need to let
the child know that whenever he’s feeling discounted, dismissed, or
disregarded, a much better option than teasing or disparaging his
younger sibling would be to share his hurt feelings with them. And then
they’ll do all they can to reassure him that he’s just as important a
member of the family as his brother.
For reasons of space, this example is abbreviated. Dialoguing with an
unhappy, disgruntled child would almost certainly necessitate more
expansion than can be furnished here. Still, this illustration should
provide some sense of how a resistant person’s defenses can be
substantially reduced through articulating their headstrong position
more kindheartedly than maybe they themselves could.
Frankly, it’s not easy to carry out such an intervention if you’re
really upset with that person’s undeniably abusive behavior. But
if—non-judgmentally and non-condescendingly—you can grasp things from
their (vulnerability-protecting) point of view, they’re likely to
appreciate your attempt to sympathetically connect with them. And that’s
how you can best lower their defenses and prompt them to see you not as
a threat but as someone who would like, peacefully, to resolve an issue
that’s become troublesome.
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After all, what’s crucial is that they “take in” what you so much need
them to hear. Which is one reason that I advise virtually everyone I
work with professionally to state their grievances with another person
by starting out with the most empathic statement they can muster. And,
as I’ve already suggested, this can be tough when that person’s behavior
is truly disturbing to you.
All the same, I think you’ll find this compassionate approach well worth
the effort. And even if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll know that now
you’ve tried just about everything. And that it’s time to decide how
best to move forward in relating to such a recalcitrant individual.
© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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