Responding to Criticism: At Work and At Home

Even when you feel grounded and confident, criticism stings. Unlike helpful feedback, criticism typically is delivered with an irritated tone of voice, contains coarse judgment, refers to what isn’t wanted, and has demand energy. Helpful feedback, by contrast, has a caring tone, is specific, refers to what is wanted, and invites collaboration.

When you hear criticism, give yourself a few moments to meet the sting you feel as it hits you. Internally or aloud acknowledge it with an “ouch.” Take a slow deep breath to help with the inevitable tension. Engage an anchor. Put your attention on body sensations for a moment or two, then connect to your needs. The most common needs to arise when one hears criticism are kindness, warmth, respect, acceptance, consideration, and safety.

This kind of self-empathy practice is necessary to prevent reactive escalation. It means that you don’t respond immediately to the person who offered the criticism. You get to choose when and how you respond. If you are concerned that your silence will be interpreted in a way that further triggers the other person, you can provide a placeholder like, “Give me a moment to process what you said.” Or, “Ouch, that stings. I need a moment.” Or, “That doesn’t work for me. I’m going to take a few minutes before I respond so that I’m not reactive.”

Once you are grounded and have access to your skills, you can make a decision about how you want to respond. At a basic level you have at least three choices:

  1. Honest expression with a boundary that ends the interaction

  2. Honest expression that invites dialogue

  3. Empathy that invites dialogue

Honest expression with a boundary that ends the interaction: at work and at home

With any of these three choices, the nuances of how you engage them depend on the trust and rapport in the given relationship. For example, if you were to offer honest expression and a boundary in an interaction with a supervisor it might sound something like this: “I just went blank and can’t process what you said. I’m going to take a bathroom break and be right back.” This workplace response has limited vulnerability, ends the interaction in a nonreactive way, and offers respect by indicating the immediacy of your return.

For a family member or partner, you can offer more vulnerability and take more time to find groundedness given the depth of rapport in the relationship. It might sound something like this: “Ouch, that stings. I value hearing you, and I also value kindness and consideration. I’m not willing to talk in this way. I will be available to talk about that after dinner and try again.”

Honest expression that invites dialogue: at work and at home

Honest expression that invites dialogue has a little more vulnerability and is a bit more specific. For example, at work with your supervisor it might sound something like this: “That kind of comment doesn't work for me. It doesn't meet my need for respect. I would like to do what you want me to do. Please tell me exactly what you want me to do.”

This movement towards a specific and doable request is the most salient aspect of the work environment. Your decision to include your unmet need(s) depends on whether or not it contributes to your own sense of self-respect and to connection in the dialogue. A reactive supervisor will likely hear you stating a need for respect or kindness as a criticism, thus escalating reactivity. In that scenario, using an implied need could sound something like this: “When I hear you say that, I go fuzzy and I have trouble taking it in. I want to hear you and get clear about what you need (your need for contribution or responsibility is implied here). Would you be willing to tell me exactly what you're wanting me to do?”  

Honest expression that invites dialogue with a partner or family member is more vulnerable and focuses on a connecting request rather than an action request. It might sound something like this: “When I hear you say that, it really stings. I care about hearing you (need for contribution) and I also care about warmth and kindness in our interactions. Would you be willing to tell me what you're hearing me say?” This connecting request slows the dialogue down, which helps with reactivity. It also invites the other person into connection. As the other person is asked to understand their impact on you, their heart can soften and they will be more likely to shift their way of speaking. You will then be able to hear what they would really like you to hear, their own feelings and needs.

This, of course, assumes that shame and defensiveness have not taken over. If shame and defensiveness come up, the other person won't be able to reflect back what they've heard; but rather, will hear your request as a test. In this case, anchoring is important. If the other person doesn't know about anchoring, then offering them reassurance that you really want to connect in kindness and hear what they have to say can help the dialogue to continue. It's also helpful to practice a connecting requests when there is no reactivity present. Creating the habit of making connecting requests in your interactions with others helps you to meet stressful moments with ease.

Empathy that invites dialogue

All criticism is a tragic expression of feelings and unmet needs. When you remember this, you know the criticism is not really about you. This awareness allows you to offer an empathy guess. An empathy guess invites the other person into connection with their own vulnerability and with you. Offering empathy doesn't mean they will respond kindly or that they will be willing to connect with their own feelings and needs. Your empathy guess is simply an invitation and an expression of your own caring and curiosity about the other person's experience.

When in less intimate interactions, like in the workplace, empathy guesses are more effective in creating connection when they focus on socially acceptable feelings or do not include feelings at all but simply refer to needs. For example, when your supervisor offers a criticism your empathy guess might sound something like this: “Sounds like finding this error was really frustrating and you'd like it to be more efficient. Is that it?” Or, “Irritating huh?” Or, “You want this to be more clear, is that it?”

Empathy guesses for a family member or partner could include the whole spectrum of feelings and needs depending on the level of vulnerability in which that person usually engages. For example, if they say, “You are a terrible listener,” your empathy guess might sound like this: “Sounds like there is something that you really want me to hear that I’m not getting, yeah?”

When an empathy guess helps the dialogue move toward connection, tone of voice is not usually the first thing to shift. Instead, look for a shift in breathing, a more specific criticism (specific criticism is a little more vulnerable than a general criticism because it reveals the moment of the trigger), more eye contact, or a little less tension in the shoulders or face.

In general, criticism is a reactive response to discomfort. Someone who offers criticism is not yet able or willing to be with their own experience and take responsibility for their needs. When you meet that criticism skillfully you not only care for yourself, you also give the other person a chance to get clear about what they need and to ask for it in a constructive way.


Take a moment to recall the last time someone criticized you. What would each of the three responses have sounded like in that situation? The three responses are:

  1. Honest expression with a boundary that ends the interaction

  2. Honest expression that invites dialogue

  3. Empathy that invites dialogue