Firmly Standing Your Ground in the Face of Criticism
by Alan Sieler
Have you ever been on the receiving end of criticism and felt emotionally attacked –from, for example, a work colleague, boss, friend or spouse? If you have had such an experience one or more times, have you struggled to provide the sort of reply you wanted to and found you have either gone mute and stewed over the experience for days, even weeks? Or have you overreacted in anger that did not bring credit to yourself and still dwelt unhelpfully on the experience?
How would your life be different if you could firmly and constructively stand your ground in the face of the negative opinions others have of you? It is definitely possible and it does not require a magic potion. It requires an in-the-moment combination of how you are in your physiology, in your emotions and how you use language. Before we look at these areas let’s start off with a few perspectives on judgments and criticisms.
Opinions and judgments (or assessments, as they are referred to in Ontological Coaching) are an integral part of humans being languaging beings. We can’t not make assessments – we are opinion-making machines. One thing that can be sadly missing is not taking responsibility for the judgments we say and write – we can just “put it out there” as though it is our right to do so without considering the consequences.
We certainly have the right to speak and write opinions, but we also have the responsibility to use these in a socially constructive manner. However, there are four things we rarely understand.
The opinions we express say more about us than what we are speaking about. This is because our opinions are based on our standards and criteria about how various aspects of the world could and should be. They are not based on universal truth.
Opinions are not facts, yet we can delude ourselves by thinking they are by becoming emotionally attached to our point of view. Opinions are important – they can be relevant and provide important learning but it is recommended that you court your opinions and do not marry them!
Assessments or opinions are not right or wrong, and nor are they true or false – they are either substantiated (grounded) or unsubstantiated (ungrounded).
We can easily give our authority away to others by treating their opinions as facts and living them as though they are true statements about us.
All too often, we inadvertently allow people to get away with making unsubstantiated judgments of us, especially negative ones. We all have the potential to embody and put into practice the above four principles as we listen to the judgments others make of us. We also have the potential to embody and put into practice another key principle, which is the central theme of this article. This theme is being able to respectfully ask the speaker to be accountable for what they have said about you.
Let us now consider crucial aspects of our Way of Being that will position you to firmly hold your ground by respectfully asking the speaker to be accountable for what they have said.
It all starts with the body. It doesn’t matter if you have very sophisticated statements and questions, you are unlikely to be able to use them in the moment of criticism if you do not have a solidly grounded postural configuration.
You are encouraged to see and feel yourself as a sturdy tree, capable of swaying in a strong breeze but sufficiently grounded not to be uprooted. Feel your feet fully in contact with the ground, weight slightly forward and imagine you have roots growing into the ground from under your feet, so that someone could firmly push one of your shoulders but you would not lose balance.
Unfortunately too many of us can be already on the back foot in our posture because our weight is predominantly distributed at the back of the feet, so we can not only be easily pushed off balance physically, but in a conversation we can be somewhat of a pushover.
Ensure your knees are comfortably bent, that your pelvis is aligned under your shoulders, you feel firm in your stomach without artificially pulling it tight, that you feel a full expansion across the top of your chest and that your head feels like a balloon lightly floating on top of your spine, with a relaxed jaw.
From this postural arrangement and staying on the one spot, allow yourself to flow and sway, like a tree in a strong breeze or like an underwater plant that maintains its footing as waves and currents pass by.
Perhaps you feel somatically strong in the above posture, feeling good about yourself. Perhaps you feel fully worthy and legitimate without being contaminated by self-doubt. Could it be that being fully in touch with your legitimacy and dignity as a person is important in responding to criticism?
What combination of emotions and moods accompany being in touch with your legitimacy, dignity and worthiness? Could it be that curiosity and a mood of Wonder about what is going on with the speaker could be helpful? Would a mood of Acceptance be helpful, accepting what has been said to you and legitimising the other person without going straight to being angry or hurt or fearful about their words? And how would it be if you felt quietly determined, even a steely determination that came from a strong backbone, not allowing someone to get away with stating their views without justifying them?
What would it be like if you had a combination of the above ways of feeling about yourself and feeling within yourself? Will you allow yourself to have this personal power? It might be a bit scary because it is very unfamiliar or foreign. How could you gradually allow yourself to become comfortable with feeling this way and knowing this can be normal?
The key to your language is asking questions and the manner in which you ask them. While we may feel attacked by others’ comments, staying curious, calm, composed and determined is likely to ensure that we use language appropriately in a tone of voice that is not hostile or feeble. Speak from your solar plexus like speaking from the trunk of the tree.
The power of well-asked questions is that they are respectfully made requests for a response in the form of an answer. This is why a mood of Wonder is so important, which includes being curious about what we can learn from the other person’s perspective. And feeling determined is crucial because it positions you to require specific responses to your questions.
Here is a repertoire of questions you can draw on to ask to ensure that the speaker is clear that you want them to be accountable for their opinion(s) of you.
I’m not sure I understand why you have said that – can you tell me what is behind your statement?
I guess it is important for you to have said that and that it takes care of something that matters to you – can you let me know what that is?
You have made a general statement; can you help me understand you better by being more specific about particular aspects of me/what I have done that you don’t agree with?
What standards of yours haven’t I met? Perhaps we do not share the same standards and who is to say which standards are right or wrong. Would you like to discuss the relevance of standards to your point of view?
What specific evidence in the form of verifiable facts do you have to support your view?
I recognise that we can all learn from each other’s opinions and I thank you for having this discussion with me. In future I welcome further opinions you may have and ask one thing – to pay me the courtesy of asking my permission to share your opinion with me.
Now it is fully recognised that the wording of the above questions may not be career enhancing in dealing with feedback from your manager! Nevertheless, variations of many of them can be used so that you and the manager have clarity about where he or she is coming from and that you have a specific understanding of potentially valuable learning opportunities for improvement.
Cultivating the suggested combination of physiology, emotions and language in this article is not just a matter of developing a nifty technique – it can be a Way of Being for how you engage with life.
Questions for application
How can you practice the suggestions for developing an appropriate physiology for dealing with criticism? What aspects of your physiology will you focus on shifting first?
What is the most powerful combination of moods and emotions you want to feel to be able to deal with criticism? How will you align this emotional space with your postural configuration?
What tone of voice and speed of speaking do you want to have when asking people to be accountable for their negative views of you so that you won’t be perceived as being aggressive or defensive?
How would you reword the above set of questions in feedback discussions with your manager?
It is suggested that you practice the above points with a friend playing the role of criticising you.
Best wishes for many successful applications. Your feedback on your efforts to apply the ideas in this article will be appreciated.