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Finding Coherence In Criticism

From Of Seeds and Sowers, NAICR’s distinguished newsletter that includes current programs, projects and tele-classes, as well as humor and inspiration. Visit the site to learn more about the work of Barbara Ashley Phillips and Kenneth Cloke.


Criticism is a habit in our culture. Just saying the word leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. For many, saying what we want and expressing how we feel is very, very difficult. This hurts: we are not meant to swallow this legitimate expression. More than we would like, we reach out to another person or situation, and blame them for the pain that has come from our own silencing of ourselves. I know that for myself, I spent years thinking that if someone loved me, they would figure out what I wanted without me asking. What a minefield for relationship!

What seems now more and more obvious is how much gold there is in criticism that comes from others – even when it is motivated by a distorted sense of self-interest. Little else has done as much to reveal to me how I am being in the moment, and to help me be clearer, kinder and more effective. I’ve seen time and again how when criticism is well-received, it contributes to a coherence in my relationships. It is as if a weight comes off, that I had not known was there.

Knowing this is useful in conflict resolution. As a mediator, I’ve at times invited the parties and counsel to a more open conversation, by asking for a ground rule around expression. Particularly with large groups, when I’m asking for ground rules, I’ll ask if participants can accept this one:

I agree to tell the mediator whatever I think she needs to know.

This has always been received positively. And I’ve gotten that feedback, sometimes privately and sometimes in front of the whole group. When I respond without defending and without inner tightness, there is huge and positive effect. If there is even a little bit of tightening inside that indicates I’ve made it about me – the positive effect is spoiled. So let me share some thoughts about what positive response looks like.

A variety of techniques constitute constructive response to criticism. Here are some examples.

You’re right. Thank you for the comment. [or] Thanks for mentioning it.

I wasn’t aware of that. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. That is helpful. Let me consider it further.

Are you saying you would like . . . [This invites discussion about what positive end the speaker is seeking, even though the comment was couched in negative terms.]

Are you saying you feel . . . [This invites direct discussion about feelings. It is appropriate where feelings are what the comment is about.]

There are many levels of defensiveness. Some are coarser. Some are finer. By paying attention to your own way of being, inside, you can easily distinguish them. In the Spiritual Realities/Heart Work/Reflective Practice trainings, participants develop greater awareness of how they are being, inside. We’ve discovered that when they notice where they are tight, when they are tight about something, they can use that physical reaction as an indicator.

You can test that proposition now: just recall a time when you felt “and I was RIGHT” about something. Notice where in your body there is tightness. From now on, you can look there first, to see how you are being.

The hallmark of a constructive response to criticism is that you feel really good inside about having received it. If there is tightness inside, there is still some defensiveness.

When there is inner tightness, reconsider your response and see if you can detect the part that makes it about you. Then let that go. If you have the opportunity, rephrase your response. If the opportunity is past, look for opportunities to make right the (however slight) harm done by the defensive response. A defensive response always has an edge on it – and it cuts.

There is nothing like positive and genuine response to criticism to signal that it is safe for others to say what’s on their mind. Carl Jung said “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” In a very real way, criticism and irritating behavior by others are more a blessing than a curse.

Positive response to what appears judgmental and critical helps us and others learn to speak more accurately and more kindly. Such a response helps organizations grow, too. An environment that makes it safe to speak breeds trust. In any organization, the higher the trust level, the higher the productivity and functionality. No amount of “open line” invitations will make it safe to speak if there is reaction and defensiveness to what is spoken. Such behavior signals that the talk isn’t walked. Once it can be seen that there is positive response to what is said, trust begins to build. It can be immediate and very motivating.

Trust is like a bank account. You build it up, moment by moment, by a more honest and open way of being – as an individual or an organization. As trust increases, people get engaged. A great deal of useful information comes forward that would not otherwise have been surfaced in useful form. As that information is taken into account, respect is communicated, whether or not there is a “reward” for good suggestions. Trust is lost through superficiality. There is little that a reward system can offer that matches the power of positive and genuine response to what is said. Here’s an example of how open, direct communication and positive and genuine response can work for you:

In a recent interview on, Denise Cooper, VP of HR for Budget Rent-a-Car during the difficult Chapter 11 days, observed: “We gave visibility to the CEO and the COO. We did this because people stay at an organization because of the people they work with. Both Sandy Miller, CEO and Mark Sotir, COO, were incredible at motivating people. When people walked out of the room with them, they were … committed to this company and doing the right thing.

“They had exposure through the process and people were able to see their ideas get implemented almost immediately. Mark could say: ‘Okay I buy your idea. Go forward. Do it.’ That interaction caused people to have a commitment to this company that you couldn’t buy.”

You can generate your own high-trust environment by how you respond to criticism and irritable comments by others. When we’re making things “about me,” we tend to look for the bad in what people say. When we’re relaxed inside, we look for what is constructive within what seems at first blush to be otherwise. By looking for what is constructive and helpful, we’re communicating a receptivity that invites greater honesty.

There is no safety in defensiveness. By dropping the defensive stance – even if it is already very, very subtle – we may feel pain, but we won’t be holding on to that pain, reliving and re-experiencing it over and over. As philosopher John deRuiter says: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Pain taken in a good way actually transforms. Received in tightness, it continues to hurt, as we persist in hurting ourselves.

Security in the sense we commonly seek it, doesn’t exist. As Helen Keller said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do [human] children . . . as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

We don’t have to bungee jump off of bridges or do extreme sports to be adventurous in life. Adventure is what happens, when we drop the defensive stance. Life becomes richer, we laugh a lot more, and we feel much more connected to ourselves and others. When we change, everything changes.


Barbara Ashley Phillips

Barbara Phillips has 19 years of widely varied mediation experience, specializing in complex, technical and sensitive matters. A graduate of Yale Law School, Phillips served as an Assistant United States Attorney and practiced primarily federal civil trial law in Oregon and California prior to becoming a mediator. In Phillips' mediations,… MORE >

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