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Receiving Criticism Without Defensiveness

There are untold ways that people show disapproval. Some may raise their voices, others roll their eyes, and yet others use sarcasm. From bouts of anger to withdrawal and pouting, this list is indeed long. How do we react when we are the object of someone’s reproach? Do we become defensive? I would venture to say that we are most likely to feel self-protective when the person who is showing his or her disapprobation is someone we care about. Feelings of defensiveness are likely to result in a similar response, with our own show of displeasure. If this cycle is not reversed, accusation, counter-accusation and resentment intensify.  

This is a vital topic for me, as one of my specialty areas is the mediation of deep-seated interpersonal conflict (in other words, struggles between people who at the time can’t stand each other). Gladly, there are a number of excellent tools available to help individuals stop seeing others as antagonists. In this article I would like to share a new tool (for me), one in which we can transform some of the ugliest attacks—real or perceived—into something constructive.

Not long after I conducted a 4-day advanced mediation seminar, I received a thoughtful gift I will always treasure. It was a book sent to me by Vlatka Varga, one of the participating mediators. Both Vlatka and her colleague Cynthia Tucker had modeled some of Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication techniques for us.

I usually have books lined up on my desk like airplanes waiting for takeoff on a busy runway. I found myself setting my other books aside and was soon absorbed by Rosenberg’s masterful work, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Cynthia recommended I also watch the two set DVD video program, The Basics of Nonviolent Communication by the same author.   

Moving away from defensiveness

Rosenberg explains that we can overcome defensiveness when we stop hearing criticism (even if it was intended) and begin, instead, to listen for unmet needs. It is so liberating to see in other people’s behavior and communication a set of unfulfilled needs rather than personal attacks. He calls this “receiving empathically.”

Say a person shouts at you, uses sarcasm or manipulative tactics, or says things that you may experience as inconsiderate and hurtful. As long as you focus on your wounded feelings, the chances of a thoughtful response greatly diminish. Most likely, you end up saying something spiteful and insensitive back, and the defensive-aggressive cycle continues. Or, you may be left not knowing what to say and be accused of refusing to talk. Either way, it seems like a losing proposition.

Rosenberg suggests that instead of focusing on how we are receiving a message, we can concentrate on the person’s implicitly suggested unmet needs (e.g., desire for acceptance, safety, order, appreciation, contribution, trust, etc.). We can thus break the cycle of defensiveness as we communicate back to others what we sense they are feeling (e.g., fear, hurt, worry) and needing. Rosenberg explains, “I think you’ll find people to be less threatening if you hear what they’re needing rather than what they’re thinking about you” (p. 95). 

We may become overly sensitive when we permit ourselves to analyze how others are expressing themselves toward us. In essence, we are burdening ourselves with other people’s imperfect communication patterns. If your intentions have ever been misunderstood—or if you have ever done the same when hearing others—you know that even in the best of circumstances effective communication is not easy. For me, the “aha moment” came when I realized that someone’s ineffective—and at times dysfunctional—communication is more about him or her than about what I may have done or said. The concept may seem deceptively simple.

Choosing not to be defensive

I suppose that the first step in incorporating Rosenberg’s approach is recognizing the moment when we begin to experience some negative emotion. That can happen very fast, of course. Albert Ellis said that “People are disturbed not by things but by the view which they take of them.” This is another way of saying that we can never have a negative (or even positive) emotion unless we first tell ourselves a story (or narrative).

Right after I really grasped Rosenberg’s non-defensive approach, I had the perfect opportunity to practice. My wife and I had been planning a special trip to Israel with one of our adult children. I have yearned to go to the Holy Land for decades. My wife asked if I had certain dates open in my engagement calendar. I did not. To my surprise, she inquired if the two of them could go without me! My response was not pretty.

I had the opportunity to use Rosenberg’s approach but instead elected to wallow in self-pity. This is the choice we make when we insist on nursing hurt feelings, assigning blame or holding on to resentments.

As soon as we recognize any sort of undesirable emotion, we have several options. Among them are to continue to build on the destructive narrative, or instead to focus on the feelings and unmet needs the other individual may be experiencing. It is not possible to do both at the same time. This suggests that—at least for the moment—we will want to put aside our own needs. If we can pass this first test, we are well on our way toward successfully using this new technique.

Hearing unmet needs

Had I focused on my wife’s needs first, I might have (very tentatively and not implying that I knew what her needs were) said something like: “You’re really excited. You found a great bargain, and one of your needs is not to let it slip by?” This would have been an empathetic response and one that would have permitted my wife to expand on, or correct, the accuracy of my perceptions.

Steven Covey taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” People are seldom receptive to hearing our needs until we have heard theirs first. To be a truly effective communicator requires both (1) being perceptive of others’ needs, as well as (2) communicating our own. After listening to my wife—thus helping her become receptive to hearing me—I could have said something like: “I have an enormous yearning to go to Israel, too. Can we keep looking for other prospects so we can all go together?” 

Marshall’s approach is not a gimmick. It requires a thorough understanding of how to provide such responses tentatively, effectively, and empathetically—as well as knowing what approaches to avoid. For instance, we would do well not to put ourselves as the direct object of another person’s feelings and needs. Thus, we might avoid saying things like “you’re hurt because I…” or “you need me to….” Precise words, mindfulness, and cautious, respectful delivery are prerequisites to effectively incorporating Rosenberg’s approach to receiving empathically.

Inverse I—messages

There are a number of popular approaches to sharing our feelings with others through I-messages (a concept first developed by Thomas Gordon). Some seem more helpful than others. The general idea is that I-messages can be less off-putting than you-messages (e.g., “You make me so angry when…!” or "You are always so…"). When properly constructed (we will discuss this in a different article), I-messages help us focus—in a non-accusatory manner—on the challenge (or displeasing behavior) at hand, rather than on the personalities. As a result, tensions can be greatly reduced. In this way we are less likely to respond defensively to perceived disapproval.

Effective construction of I-messages also takes considerable practice and skill. Even the most elegantly designed I-message, nevertheless, still ends up being about us—our feelings and our needs. The Rosenberg method, again, permits us to first focus on the needs of others.

A colleague, Elise Willis, director of the Mediation Center of San Joaquin (Stockton, California) explained that, in part, the elegance of Rosenberg’s approach is that we are offering a sort of inverse I-message for the other individual. And that is precisely what is happening. Many individuals are hardly aware of their own needs, much less the desirability of composing an effective I-message. So we can assist them, and ourselves, by first directing our response to the unmet needs behind the hurt, sadness, frustration or negative emotions they may be feeling. The individual who feels heard in this way is then more receptive to considering our needs.   

Concluding thoughts

In his book and videos, Rosenberg models this non-defensive technique in very high pressure situations, some of them life-and-death. As a Party-Directed Mediation practitioner, I make use of the pre-caucus to first empathically listen to individuals as they vent, and later, to coach them in the use of more effective interpersonal negotiation techniques—ones that they will need when facing the other party in the joint session (and outside the mediation environment). I have begun to successfully include Marshall Rosenberg’s defensiveness deflection and redirection technique as part of my mediation coaching during the pre-caucus. Just as importantly, I have been able to receive empathically in my own interpersonal relations, for which I will forever be grateful to Marshall, Vlatka, and Cynthia.

More information on the book and videos:
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2nd Edition) by Marshall B. Rosenberg (2003). Puddle Dancer Press, Encinitas, CA, xix, 220 pp. $19.95 paper [ISBN 978-1892005038 / 1892005034] / The Basics of Nonviolent Communication (2008) 2-set DVD, $45, [SKU: NVC0404].


Gregorio Billikopf

Gregorio Billikopf is an emeritus Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California and a visiting professor of the Universidad de Chile. His research and teaching efforts have focused on organizational productivity (selection, compensation, performance appraisal, discipline and termination, supervision) and interpersonal relations (interpersonal negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation).  MORE >

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