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RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: FOUR LEVELS OF MATURITY

Let’s say you meet a guy named Pete.  As you begin to interact with him some of his actions begin to upset you.  You say, “Pete, since we met you have yelled at me twice and called me stupid.”  Pete responds to your criticism by smashing his elbow right into your cheek.

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

Do you think you would like Pete?  Would you respect Pete for acting this way?  Would you want to be friends with him?

To find out how people feel about different styles of responding to criticism, I made a lot of TV shows with a variety of actors.

Illustration by Jack Star Rubin

In each show the actors respond to criticism in different ways.  Then I asked others to watch the shows.  Together, we discussed their reactions to the way the people in the video recordings handle the criticism.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

I soon became very familiar with what people like and respect when it comes to responding to criticism.  This helped me to come up with four different ways to handle criticism.  I put them in order from the least respected to the most respected.  Level one is the least liked.  Each higher level is viewed as more mature, likable, and respected by those who watched the video recordings.  Let’s take a look at these four levels.

Four Levels of Responding to Criticism

1.  This level requires displaying one or more of the following:

  • Weeps or sobs with tears or pouts
  • Physically attacks the criticizer
  • Damages property

2.  This level requires displaying one or more of the following:

  • Insults the criticizer (either with words, hand gestures, the sticking out of a tongue, the rolling of the eyes, or smirks)
  • Glares at the criticizer
  • Threatens the criticizer
  • Punches, kicks, or throws an object without physically hurting someone or damaging anything
  • Criticizes the criticizer without first fully addressing the original criticism.

3.  This level requires displaying one or both of the following:

  • Displays defensiveness without directly insulting the criticizer (raising voice’s volume or pitch)
  • Displays a lack of interest either by verbally indicating this, or with nonverbal cues, or complete silence. 

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

4.  Level 4 individuals listen to the criticizer in a supportive, warm, friendly style, and then make it clear that they fully understand what was said.  Moreover, they put the criticizer at ease by making statements that indicate that the wise learn from criticism.  Some time is spent on showing that they are thinking about the criticism.  If, after thinking about the criticism the criticism is deemed to be correct, they make a statement frankly indicating, “I can see your ideas have merit and I intend to use them in the future.”  If they are not sure if they agree, they make a statement indicating that they are very interested in what was said, plan to think a little more about this over the next few days and then they will be ready to discuss this further.  If, after thinking about the criticism, the criticism is deemed to be incorrect, a statement is made designed to disagree without being disagreeable.  More specifically, a sense of humor, some listening in a caring way and a few smiles help to traverse rough terrain.  As the episode winds down, the criticizer is encouraged to feel comfortable communicating suggestions in the future.

People who viewed the responses to criticism video recordings differed in age (from ten to senior citizens) and the region of the country that they lived (mid-west, east coast, inner city, suburb or small town).  Regardless of their age and where they lived they rated people who displayed responses to criticism in a style consistent with the higher levels as more likable, respected and mature.

Why are higher levels of responding to criticism viewed as more likable, respected and mature?  Is there a higher level than the level 4 description?  In addition to different levels of maturity in responding to criticism, are there different levels of maturity when it comes to how one goes about providing criticism?  What do we really mean by different levels of maturity?  We take up these questions soon in coming posts.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

 

INSULTING CRITICISM: WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
RESPONDING TO CRITICISM AND THE GOLDEN RULE

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

15 Comments

  1. The levels of handling criticism I think are very interesting and well put, but i feel like there should be a level in between 3 and 4… What level would I be if I listened in a friendly way to a person’s criticism and then said thank you and then said goodbye or changed the subject instead of doing all that other stuff like showing the criticizer that you are really thinking hard about what they said and telling them you’ll think about it and work on it. There doesn’t seem to be a level in your system for this way of handling things.

    • Yes, JSR, I see what you mean. If you listened in a friendly way to a person’s criticism and then said thank you and then said goodbye or changed the subject instead of doing all that other stuff mentioned at level 4 it would be best to rate such a response somewhere between level 3 and 4. For the purpose of the blog, I’ll call that type of response level 3.5. Good observation. If you, or other followers of this blog, wish to suggest some other levels, I think it would be instructive to hear about them.

      Thanks,

      Jeff

      • I agree with JSR. Some criticisms clearly do not merit a lot of thought or time, and the person doing the criticism does not deserve that kind of positive feedback.
        For example, if someone calls you an “idiot” , simply out of anger, or because they disagree with something you have said, or with the intention of merely hurting your feelings, I don’t see any reason to do a great deal of thinking about it.
        I think it is perfectly acceptable to simply dismiss it as an inappropriate statement, and move on. You may say something like “I’m sorry you feel that way, Jeff.” Turn around and walk away.
        You don’t need to spend days considering his statement. You probably have more productive ways to spend your time.
        Just let it go.

  2. I have happily discovered your blog via someone sharing it on FB. Great work! And I have already shared it as well. I have question. How would you classify someone who initially responds with #3 (wounded/ angry silence) & withdrawal followed by indirect, retaliatory criticism behind the back? Or, could you address this in a following blog if you feel it would be of wider interest? Thanks for your offerings!

  3. Hi Jaime, Much thanks for your kind words and sharing some of my posts. I think your question is worthy of a whole post, but I’ll make a quick comment here. If I was convinced as clearly as you are of the facts as you state them, I would classify the response (not the person) as a level 2. The “indirect, retaliatory criticism behind the back” is clearly, to me, an effort at insulting, which best matches a level 2 response. Does that make any sense?

    • Sounds like the type of criticism recieived has some weight. Perhaps if these levels are geared more toward responses to constructive criticism vs. simple any criticism, I think this would help readers of your blog (which is very well written and put together by the way, thank you for giving me the opportunity to come across it). I would personally benefit from an article on the variety of levels with which to provide constructive criticism, especially related to each level of [likely] response from the receiver. As a means to avoid conflict for both the receiver and the criticizer. Thanks again!

      • Hi Jen,
        Obviously your comment can be applied to many types of criticism situations in which the target of the criticism feels the criticizer’s criticism is not constructive. Therefore, any suggestion that I can offer in response to your comment can miss the mark for a particular situation. But, just off the top of my head, I’ll throw out a couple of ideas that might be of help, at least to think a little further about this. What about saying to some who provides such nonconstructive criticism, “What do you hope to achieve by that comment? Are you trying to be constructive in some way, or just letting off steam?” If said in a caring, supportive manner, it might lead to a worthwhile exchange. Often, we can tell why the person is angry given what has led up to the criticism, and if you already know why, a simple statement like the following might be helpful. “I see you are really angry. I’ll think about what you have said, and I hope we can reach a better place about all of this after we have some time to cool down.” Here again, how this is said, is important.

        • Thank you, Dr. Rubin. Very helpful and useful information. I anticipate it will be put into action with a particular individual in my life here pretty soon. So, thank you for your expeditious response and I’ll let you know how it plays out.

  4. Hi Eva, thanks for your comment. There you brought up three examples in which someone calls you an “idiot.” First, because the person simply does it out of anger. Second, because the person disagrees with something you have said. Third, the person does it with the intention of merely hurting your feelings.

    As I understand your comment, in each of these three situations you believe that “it is perfectly acceptable to simply dismiss it as an inappropriate statement, and move on. You may say something like ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Jeff.’ Turn around and walk away. ”

    Such a response is, in my opinion, a whole lot better than many other responses that I can think of. I’m not saying that your approach is wrong, but for me, if the person is angry, I am pretty much always interested in finding out why. There are many situations in which I’m pretty sure what led to the anger from what had happened before the anger began to be displayed. In that case, I probably would summarize why I thought the person was angry, ask if I was correct, and give him or her a chance to clarify. Then, depending on the specifics of the situation, I might say something like, “I’ll give you some time to calm down and maybe we can continue our discussion some other time.”

    Your second example of someone calling you an idiot involves the person doing it because he or she disagrees with something you have said. You express the feeling that because the person called you an idiot he or she doesn’t merit much thought or time. My approach usually just takes a little more than a minute or two. When someone calls me an idiot I don’t feel insulted–its like water off a duck’s back. If it was said by someone I have an ongoing relationship with, after the person calms down, usually at least a day or two later, I often will say to him or her something like “The last time we had a discussion you called me an idiot. I’m hoping we can discuss things in the future without the name calling.”

    As for the third example, if someone says something designed to hurt my feelings, I turn on the charm while seeking to find out why he or she wants to hurt my feelings. I think it is worthwhile to take the time to find out why, and to seek to find some way to turn the desire to hurt my feelings to a desire that we have a more pleasant relationship.

    I know that each situation is different and calls for different approaches, but I thought I’d give you some off the cuff reactions to your comment. My Best.

  5. ahhhh, i hope, before i leave this life, to elevate my psyche’s ability to respond in a clear, compassionate, forthright manner! i’ll melt into a “1”, so quickly; the early childhood conditioning knows no other place to go. after that subsides, i’ll go into silence and passive-aggressive mindset. again, conditioning. somewhere down the road, i’ll be able to sit back, evaluate, contemplate, and, on occasion, if it feels as though my response will be respected, respond with more maturity. it takes a long time, though, it seems; first, that little conditioned psyche has to make sure she won’t be killed by another’s words. that i can come to “clear seeing” feels good, both self-protecting, and all-involved honoring.

    • Hi Vicki, I think it is great that you hope to elevate your psyche’s ability to respond in a clear, compassionate, forthright manner to criticism. It has been my experience that if I rehearse in my mind responding as I hope to in real life situations, I am far more likely to be able to carry out my hopes in real life. I imagine the last time somebody criticized me. Then I think about what I could say and how I could say it the next time that a similar situation arises. I practice this over and over in my mind until I can say it in a smooth, comfortable manner. Best wishes, Jeff

      • Jeff, thanks for your response and insight. after writing my comments, i realized that i respond rather appropriately when someone launches a criticism either from a distance (via fb or email, for instance), or when i’ve had some forewarning that a “shot” will be coming. it’s the abusive “surprise attacks” that trigger fight/flight/freeze. life…what a ride!! no need to reply.

  6. Hello Dr Jeff,
    Got the link of your blog from google plus and I am glad that I made this discovery.
    I feel criticisms are an integral part of our life and we need to learn how to handle this with maturity. I have seen some people who even takes a very destructive criticism in a positive way.
    Thanks for writing this

  7. What if I do not wish to display lack of interest, but simply lack interest?

    • Hi Bryan,
      It seems to me that there are consequences to “simply lack interest.” It often comes across as a lack of respect toward the person providing the criticism. When people feel like they have been treated disrespectfully, they can either respond directly in a manner that you will not like, or indirectly, behind your back. If you are ok about such consequences, you are free to display a lack of interest. But it only takes a few seconds to display some interest in order to get yourself into a more respectful relationship with others, and the consequences of this are typically in your own best interest.

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