Listening Well: Responding to Criticism


When was the last time you found yourself in an argument with someone? Who do you argue with most frequently? And what are those arguments about? Want a more productive option??

Michael Nichols, the author of “The Lost Art of Listening” shares a story about his temperamental cat that many of us can probably relate to. This cat was “perfectly friendly, except that once in a while she’d lash out violently with her claws.” Minor details! So, one minute she would be purring while someone pet her, and the next minute, the person would be wielding a bloody scratch on their hand. At some point, Mr. Nichols took the poor cat to the vet and discovered she had an injured hip. They suspected it was an injury from early kitten-hood. So they realized: what had seemed to others like a harmless touch, was actually quite painful for her.

The same is often true in our relationships. Someone makes a fairly benign remark, and we essentially respond with claws and hissing, because they’ve touched on an invisible wound.

Nichols explains, “Shame and insecurity are the wounds that make people react violently to criticism. Some people retreat from hurt feelings, others attack.”

How do you react to shame and insecurity? Do you retreat from hurt feelings? Or attack?

This idea of reacting emotionally is an important concept because, “reacting emotionally to what other people say is the number-one reason conversations turn into arguments” (p. 117). So, the most important piece in an argument is not what the other person says. It’s our own emotional reactions that turn someone else’s statement into a fight!

But there’s another option. Rather than responding with claws and fangs, when we feel criticized, we can practice responsive listening. Here’s a quick “How To”:

  1. Suspend your own agenda. Press pause on whatever it is you were hoping to express.
  2. Listen to the entire complaint. Avoid defensiveness and avoid cutting the other person off.
  3. Invite more information. Without defending or disagreeing, ask about any additional thoughts, feelings, and wishes. Ask (without sarcasm), “Is there anything else?”
  4. Offer your summary of what the other person was trying to express. And ask if you have understood accurately. “It sounds like… is that right?”
  5. Then summarize the request you heard. Behind every complaint is a request. Make sure you drew the correct conclusion. “So, you would prefer that I … is that what you were wanting?”
  6. Either accept the request or make a counteroffer. “Sure, I can do that.” Or “What about if we…?”
  7. Ask for a chance to share your perspective. “Would you be willing to hear my thoughts on this issue?” Then, when you have an opportunity to be the speaker, dial down the intense emotionality, and you’ll have a better chance of being heard. When we speak in an anxious, pressured, or attacking manner – it’s almost impossible for anyone to receive and consider our “request.” Sometimes it’s beneficial if you wait even an entire day before attempting to present your perspective.

Here’s a chance to try out your new Responsive Listening skills!

First, practice these skills with someone you rarely have conflict with. Then, plan in advance to use responsive listening with someone you’re likely to have a disagreement with and plan to wait at least a day before you offer your perspective. Then, look for an opportunity to practice dealing with criticism. Plan to respond without defensiveness. Listen without debating and invite the person to share more. Follow the steps above, all the way through Step 6, but practice self-restraint by not defending yourself against their words. Instead, you might use a conclusion like, “Thanks for being willing to share your honest feedback with me. You’ve given me a lot to consider and I want to continue thinking about what you’ve shared.”

Of course, if you need some help practicing or refining your Responsive Listening skills, the therapists at GROW Counseling would be happy to help you cultivate these skills.

(Adapted from “The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships” by Michael Nichols, 2009.)

Mindy Pierce, MA , LPC
MPierce @