When Attacked, How to React: 3 Steps to Handling Criticism Well

We’ve all had it happen. Someone, possibly an influential member, verbally attacks you out of the blue, openly criticizing you, perhaps in front of others; calling into question your competence or character.

Caught off guard, you burn with embarrassment,  hurt and anger.  Your first instinct: defend yourself or your views. Your first reaction: deny the accusation and argue with the accuser.

Be careful of your response! Following the inclination to defend yourself could result in a power struggle that may end neither soon nor well.

While it will take a high degree of self-control, here’s an alternative. Rather than engaging defensively in a   “win/lose” conflict style, try the following three steps:

  • Bite your tongue. Take a mental step back, stay silent and give yourself time to think through the situation before responding.

  • Bide your time. Remember, you don’t have to say anything until you know what to say. Sometimes the best immediate response is no response.  You can say, “Wow, I am really surprised you feel that way” or “I feel shocked right now; I don’t know what to say.”

  • Build your understanding. When you do speak, ask open ended questions to learn about what is really behind the words.  Examples could be, “How long have you been feeling like this” or “What brought you to this conclusion?” You can’t really know the best way to respond until you first understand the issue the criticism or attack was really about.

They may have misinterpreted something you said or did. It may be a reflection of their own issues and not really about you at all. Discern the underlying situation and you will be able to engineer an optimal response; one that will promote greater understanding and growth.

Responding defensively or angrily often sets the stage for a power struggle, a win-lose conflict style, which forecloses on the opportunity for real growth.  It precludes discovery about what provoked the member’s words in the first place. In a win-lose conflict situation, even the winner loses because the negativity may just go underground and resurface later.  So even if you win, you lose.

Conflicts are unavoidable. It’s how we handle them that makes the difference. Staying calm and perhaps even momentarily silent in the face of criticism requires personal mastery and a secure sense of identity. It is not easy but pays big benefits.

So next time you are ambushed with caustic criticism, remember to bite your tongue, bide your time and build your understanding before responding.

Maintain your poise, power, and authority by refusing to engage in a power struggle. Lead the way towards growth for the member, yourself, and all those who are watching. Your influence will grow.