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8-10 minutes
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 challenging.

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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