How to respond to criticism assertively?

Understandably, we don’t particularly enjoy being criticised. However, some forms of corrective feedback is very useful, especially those that shed light on our blind spots. At the same time, we have no need for any unfunded, harmful criticism that has more to say about the person that provides it than ourselves. Typical non-assertive reactions include perplexity, being offended, becoming defensive, responding with anger, shifting responsibility to others, or developing negative feelings that we keep for ourselves. If we wish to respond assertively, we first need to determine if the consider the feedback constructive or destructive.

If you feel that the critical remark is constructive, you should openly agree with it. To be able to learn more, you should ask questions for further clarification to uncover important details.

In other cases, you will sense that the criticism is not really helpful, but is more like an attack against you. Feedback that is general, not specific, evaluative, not descriptive or focuses on the person, not the issue, is often like that. In such situations, the assertive response starts with refusing the criticism right away, applying emotional control. The subsequent step is to ask specifying questions: What exactly do you mean by “irresponsible”? Could you give specific examples when I was “careless”? Can you help me understand why you consider this report “useless”? This way the person giving the feedback is forced to be more specific to defend his/her viewpoint. As a final step, you can dissolve their remark by expressing some level of agreement. You can agree partially, agree in principle or agree with the possibility. But definitely not with the destructive remark.

It is always very useful to wait a little bit before responding to critical feedback. You will be able to sense if there is an intention to help you develop, or it is more about talking down to you. Being assertive in such situations will either result in learning, if there is something to learn, or you clearly articulate and defend your boundaries. People have the right to provide feedback to you, and you have the right to decide if it is helpful or something to be refused and completely ignored.

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