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Assertive Approaches for Dealing with Criticism

Danica Joan June 16, 2022

Some people may have developed special coping mechanisms to minimize the pain of criticism that have followed them into adulthood, such as blowing up, recalling the faults of the critic, or acting as if they didn’t hear the criticism yet still feel miserable inside. These extremes of aggression and passive approaches to dealing with criticism can damage healthy relationships as well as self-esteem. Following are some effective assertive approaches for dealing with criticism that will help you simultaneously maintain your relationships and self-esteem intact.


When others offer constructive criticism, you can use this feedback to improve yourself. When you have made an error, having others pointed out to you in a logical way can be helpful in preventing future mistakes. Whenever you receive criticism with which you agree, whether it is constructive or simply a reminder, acknowledge that the other is right. For example, “Yes, I did put on one purple and one green sock this morning. Thank you for pointing it out.” You are not required to give excuses or apologize for your behavior. When you were a child, you may have been asked questions such as “Why did you knock over the trash?” or “Why were you 45 minutes late?” You are expected to give reasonable answers, and you learned to come up with reasonable excuses. As an adult, you may choose to give an explanation for your behavior, but it is not necessary. It is your choice as you are not obligated to explain yourself. You can decide whether you really want to, or whether you’re just responding out of habit.


A non-constructive criticism with which you disagree may require the use of a more creative assertive approach known as sorting. The non-constructive criticism of you usually contains a grain of truth with a spin of the criticizer’s imagination in order to put you down. For example, “When can we get going? You’re always late. Sometimes I wonder how you keep your job.” People who employ non constructive criticism tend towards name-calling and you-messages. When they are in a critical emotional state they may bring up old history or use absolute such as “always”, “never”, and “everyone”. If you try to reason with them, you may only give them more ammunition for their case. They may not be interested in listening to you at this point, even when you ask a question. Their present fragile ego state may require them to be right and to win their point. As your tempted to justify yourself or retaliate in kind to the non constructive criticism, remind yourself that you will only feed a senseless argument, which you cannot possibly win. If you are still unconvinced, think back to a similar situation when you have tried to reason or get even with someone. Why continue to waste your time doing something so unpleasant and unproductive? Try some alternative ways to sort out the criticism. Sorting involves distinguishing the piece of truth from the spin of non constructive criticism. Here are three creative and effective ways to do this.

Agreement in Part

This method of sorting involves finding some piece of the manipulative critic’s statement that you think is true, and agreeing with it. Reframe the other’s statement in a way that does not jeopardize your integrity. Delete the absolutes and leave out the non-constructive part of the message. In response to the example above, you might simply say, “You’re right, I am late sometimes.” Others may try to get you to admit to more than you wish. As long as you persist in staying with some part of the other’s statement to agree with, he or she will probably give up on proving the spin.

Agreement in Principle

This next method of sorting involves agreeing with others in principle. This utilizes simple logic: if X, then Y. “If I am always as late as you say, then I would have truly lost my job long ago.” Here is another example of an agreement-in-principle response others might say, “You did a lousy job cleaning the dishes. They still have grease on them. You’re the laziest person I’ve ever met! You’re not going to make it at your new job if they catch you working like this!” You might respond with, “You’re right I wouldn’t be a very good dishwasher at a restaurant if I left grease all over the dishes.”

Agreement in Probability

The third method of sorting that you can use with a person who employs non constructive criticism is called agreement in probability. Choose something within other’s critical statement with which you could probably agree. You can remind yourself that the odds of this one piece of the statement being accurate are minuscule as you reply, “You’re probably right that I’m frequently late.” Reframe the other’s wording slightly so that you maintain your integrity.


At times when you are unsure about the other’s intent, clarification may be in order. Whether others are trying to help you, however clumsily, or putting you down intentionally, makes a difference. Is the other person actually trying to hurt you under the guise of being helpful? Are the other’s comments actually hiding unspoken beliefs, feelings, and desires? To clarify the intent of the other’s statement, you may want to clarify by listening carefully – a major feat, especially if you have a history of being criticized. Here is an example of clarification.

Other Person: Late again, I see. One of these days you’ll arrive at work only to find that everyone else has gone home for the day.

You: What is it about my being late that bothers you?

Other Person: I work hard all day with a ton of pressure on me. You have a much more stress-free job all day, and you still don’t get dinner on the table on time.

You: What is it about my schedule that really troubles you so much?

Other Person: I haven’t had a vacation in over a year, and I work overtime every weekend. You take it easy all week and make almost as much money as I do and get away with it. It’s just not fair.

You: I didn’t know you felt so strongly about this lack of fairness stuff!

Other Person: Well, now that I talked about it out loud, I guess I don’t really believe that life is fair. I guess I made my own choices for working so hard and you’ve made decisions along the way so that you don’t have to.

In this situation, clarification was helpful in placing responsibility for the dissatisfaction where it belonged: with others. Sometimes others will not have so much insight or inclination for clarification. When you’ve assured yourself that the other’s criticism is not constructive or is manipulative, then shift from clarification to sorting. If you agree with the criticism, acknowledge it. Be careful when you clarify that you do not either verbally or non-verbally give the message “So what’s the problem now?” (This suggests that you perceive the other as a constant complainer). When used appropriately, clarification can turn a person who employs judgmental criticism into an assertive individual who directly expresses his or her thoughts, feelings, and needs while also honoring yours.

The Content-to-Process Shift

If a conversation gets stuck in a conflict of needs or strong feelings, you can shift the focus from the presenting topic to an analysis of what is happening between the two of you. Simply state to others that you experience the conversation has gone off the original point. Rather than argue about this you can simply say, “I’m just stating my opinion” and then you can quickly returned to the original topic. For example, you’re asking the other person to talk to you more, and he or she responds you feel like “I’m emotionally abandoning you? I can recall on our summer vacation you only spoke to me about three times.” Instead of getting into a convoluted discussion about the issue of the vacation, you can say “We’re getting away from the problem at hand”, or “Maybe you are angry with something I said.”

The Broken Record Approach

The good news is that you have the assertive right to express what you think, feel, and need. The bad news is that people may misunderstand each other’s assertive need to stand up for their rights. The broken record approach is one of several assertiveness skills that will help you deal more effectively with others. The key to this approach is repetition. This technique is also effective and communicating to others what you need when their interests are preventing them from seeing yours. Here are five steps of the broken record approach:

  1. Decide exactly what you need or don’t want. Assess your thoughts about the situation, your feelings, and you’re assertive rights.
  2. Create a brief, specific, easy to understand statement about what you need. A single sentence is best. Don’t offer excuses or explanations. It is most effective to say “I don’t want to…”, or “I’m not comfortable with…”. In wording your brief sentence, eliminate any loopholes that others might use to further his or her position.
  3. Employer assertive body language to support your sentence: good posture, direct eye contact, and a calm and self-assured voice.
  4. Firmly repeat your brief sentence, as many times as necessary for others to get your message and to realize that you won’t change your mind. He or she will probably invent a number of excuses or simply say no. Eventually even the most aggressive person will run out of no’s and excuses, if you are persistent and logical in your approach. Change your brief sentence only if others find a serious loophole in it.
  5. You may acknowledge the other’s opinions, feelings, or wants before returning to your broken record. But do not feel obligated to answer questions. Be careful not to be distracted from your goal.