Imagine this. You are in a good mood today. There’s something you are really happy about and you decide to tell your friend to share the excitement. However, your friend listens mainly in nonchalance while you are gushing away. Worse still, he/she starts giving his/her 2 cents about how it’s really not that great. Talk about a wet blanket! Before you know it, your mood switched 180 degrees, from a happy state to one of annoyance and irritation.
Does this sound familiar? This is a typical behavior of critical people. Critical people can be real downers, just like energy vampires. No matter what you say, they always find some way to derail the mood of the conversation. You can’t ever remember when was the last time they gave a compliment or encouragement. They have an uncanny ability to scrutinize and zoom into every little problem there is. Following which, they fixate on these issues and offer unwanted opinions on them. If that’s not enough, they top it off with their projection of all the possible bad things that can happen.
In Are You Emotionally Generous?, I shared why we should be cut out the emotional stinginess and why emotional generosity is the way to go. Critical people are emotionally stingy, because they are so bent on harping on “flaws” and what’s not there. They seem to have an automatic filter which mentally blocks out whatever goodness before them. Rather than give praise, they can only criticize.
Naturally, critical people aren’t the first people you’d think of hanging out with. While you can try to get out of their way, you are bound to run into one or two of them in school or at work. Here are my 8 tips on how to handle them:
1. Don’t Take It Personally
Most of the times, their criticisms reflect more about themselves than about you. They react in this manner because of certain beliefs and frameworks they have about life. You may think the critical person is all out to get you, but it’s more likely he/she reacts in this same manner toward everyone else too.
Here’s one simple way to check – Think about the common friends you have with the critical person. If possible, identify people of the same standing as you, so it’s comparable. After this, try to be present the next time they are with each other and observe how the critical person interacts with him/her. How does the critical person behave? Does he/she give the same pattern of comments? Does he/she focus on the negative things? Does he/she come across as critical? Chances are high that it’s going to be a yes.
I used to take a critical friend’s comments to heart. I’d wonder why she was always so discouraging, and would feel defensive when she voiced out with her unwelcomed criticism. However, when I observed her treatment of our common friends, I realized she did this with others too. Same comments, same criticisms, same hang-ups with them, even though I never saw anything wrong with our common friends. Not only that, there was a trend in what she said and harped on. It was then that I realized it wasn’t about me; it was her inner frameworks. It was a liberating realization. From there on, I no longer took anything she said personally and was able to objectify the situation.
2. Objectify the Comments – Understand the Underlying Message
Sometimes, I feel critical people are just misunderstood. They may be trying to offer an opinion that’s misinterpreted due to their lack of tact. At times, this swirls into a big misunderstanding. They become labeled as *ssholes even though they really aren’t trying to be.
Unfortunately, people become hung up over “how” communication is done (the words used, the tone of communication), rather than “what” is being communicated (the message). The former ensures the message is conveyed correctly, but ultimately it is the message that matters. Critical people may be curt, but we are the ones who choose to attach the negativity to their words. Critical people may lack tact, but that’s because they lack awareness of how their behavior impacts others. You may be surprised, but sometimes they are really just clueless on how they are coming across until they see themselves in action. If you are taking their comments negatively when they don’t intend to be negative at all, that’s probably the worst way to expend your energy.
Filter through their words (more importantly, your interpretations of their words) and get down to the real message. What are they trying to communicate? Why are they saying these things? What are their intentions? Are they really trying to be *ssholes or is it a different intention?
Behind their words may lie great insights. If you can get past the “how” and get down to the “what“, you gain access to valuable feedback for improvement. Two powerful things occur here:
- Firstly, you are a step ahead in your journey of conscious living because you are no longer behaving in a reactive manner.
- Secondly, you are literally more knowledgeable now that you know the real intent of their feedback. This can be constructively used in your journey of self-improvement. Neither of these can happen if you are hung up over the criticism.
The previous company I worked at is an American MNC, so the communication was often direct and to the point. There were times when people would be overly curt and blunt, especially when caught in pressing situations and tight timelines. One of the general managers was well known for his fiery temper, lashing out with verbal attacks and swearing at people when things were not going well.
While some might gasp at this behavior, there is really no reason to take offense, because that’s just how he chooses to communicate. Of course it’d be ideal if everyone communicates in a sociably tactful manner, but ultimately you can’t change how others act. You can however, change how you perceive something. What really matters is the message the person is trying to convey, more than what exactly is being said.
Needless to say, the ones who chose to see the comments in a negative light put themselves through unnecessary unhappiness; the ones who sieved through the words and got to the essence of the message were able to improve based on the feedback. My past experience has made me more perceptive because rather than focus on exact words being said, I listen to what the person is communicating. The ability to actively “listen” beyond words is critical for all of us in connecting and building strong relationships.
3. Take it as a Source of Honest Feedback
Honesty can never be underrated. Take their criticisms as a source of reliable, honest feedback, rather than seeing them as uninvited criticisms. At least with them, you know what you see is what you get.
I would much rather be out with a direct, blunt person than with someone who is seemingly nice but is fake. Some people pretend to be nice and supportive in front of you, when in actuality they are not in agreement and they are just concealing their misgivings. I’ve come across a couple of such people, and while the friendship initially starts off on a high note, the revelation of their dishonesty later on disgusts me to no end and puts an abrupt end to the friendship. On the other hand, I have friends who may be uncomfortably blunt when I first know them, but later reveal themselves to be true gems because they are reliable and true to their words.
4. Address Your Discomfort Within
Just as their criticisms reflect something about their inner frameworks, our discomfort with their criticisms reflects something about our inner frameworks too, especially if we are bothered by it.
If I ever feel uncomfortable about others’ comments, I’ll look within to understand why I’m feeling that way. Chances are, it made me uncomfortable because it has struck a chord with an inner belief. The next step is then on me to discover what it is. This is consistent with everything we face in life too. Sources of discomfort should be seen as a compass for growth. As I shared in one of my quotes in 101 Inspiring Quotes, “Fear, uncertainty and discomfort are your compasses toward growth”.
Ask yourself – Why am I feeling uncomfortable with his/her comment? Why am I unhappy about what he/she just said? What is it about it that is bothering me?
Keep asking and drilling down to the root cause. The first set of answers will be directed toward the external world, such as issues with the other person. However, as you keep drilling down, the answers change from outward-directed to inward-directed.
This means the discomfort is not because of the person; it’s really because of something in you. It could be a certain belief or a certain similar situation from the past. The final answer should be one which helps you gain closure on your discomfort and helps you to directly act on the situation by your own actions, without expecting anyone else to change.
5. Don’t “Ask” for Opinions if You Can’t Take It
If you can’t take what the person has to say, then don’t ask for his/her opinion. This includes invitations for opinions, by virtue of just talking on the topic. Critical people like to dispense their opinions even where they are not asked, so just make sure you don’t mention it in front of them.
Some of my friends would complain about how their critical friends put them down all the time. Yet for some reason, they keep putting themselves in the receiving end of criticisms after that. In a way it’s probably done subconsciously for validation and acceptance, simply because it’s so hard to get encouragement from critical people.
However, the natural reaction of critical people is to criticize, not praise. So if you talk to them about something in hopes they will respond in enthusiasm and encouragement, stop doing it. You have seen their critical behavior in action before, so it shouldn’t surprise you if they continue to dish out criticisms at what you say. Albert Einstein would tell you that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, and he’s right. If you still insist on putting yourself in the same situation, then you really have no one else to blame but yourself!
6. Disengage from their Criticism / Ignore Them
Here’s an insightful story I’ve heard several times before, but never grow tired of:
Buddha was well known for his ability to respond to evil with good. There was a man who knew about his reputation and he traveled miles and miles and miles to test Buddha. When he arrived and stood before Buddha, he verbally abused him constantly; he insulted him; he challenged him; he did everything he could to offend Buddha.
Buddha was unmoved, he simply turned to the man and said, “May I ask you a question?”
The man responded with, “Well, what?”
Buddha said, “If someone offers you a gift and you decline to accept it, to whom then does it belong?”
The man said, “Then it belongs to the person who offered it.”
Buddha smiled, “That is correct. So if I decline to accept your abuse, does it not then still belong to you?”
The man was speechless and walked away.
Some people may voluntarily offer criticisms, even when you’re not asking for them. These criticisms may well be out of line and done in poor taste. One way you can respond is to retaliate in anger.
However, since the person must have a lot of angst to be voluntarily dispensing criticisms in the first place, your retaliation will probably only invite more of such comments from him/her. No sooner will this become a heated, ugly debate with one another – one which is unlikely to end well.
As they say about online flaming – “Don’t feed the trolls”. If you can’t stop them from voicing their opinions, then you have an option of ignoring them. Give a simple 1-2 liner response, one that acknowledges receipt of the comment but doesn’t engage further in the discussion. And if the person presses on, then just ignore him/her altogether. At this point, it’s obvious that he/she wants to ignite a response in you. By not doing so, you maintain your locus of control of the situation.
Just as the critical people need to take responsibility for their comments, we have to take responsibility for receiving the negativity too. With every occurrence, there is always the event itself, and our perception of the event. We can’t change how people want to act or talk around us, but we can change how we act around them. We always have a choice. If we don’t want to accept the negativity, then just don’t accept it. The negativity is not ours if we don’t take it.
7. Show Them Kindness
This may be a huge leap forward for some. You are probably wondering: “Why should I be kind to them? They are causing me so much anguish as it is. They most certainly don’t deserve my kindness!”
I watched Peaceful Warrior about half a year ago, and there was a quote I really liked:
“The people who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it the most.”
I thought this is a very powerful quote. It’s true, isn’t it? If you think about it, why are the critical people so critical? Why is it so hard for them to be positive? Why are they so scarce with their emotions? It’s because they lack it themselves. This is why they are not able to offer it to others. And if they are so critical to others, chances are they treat themselves with the same, if not higher, level of criticism. They aren’t even giving themselves the love they desire.
Treat them with kindness. Be generous with your emotions with them. Drop them a compliment. Give them a smile. Say hi. Ask them out for a meal. Help them out in areas you know they can benefit from your help. Get to know them personally. Don’t judge the effectiveness of your actions by their initial reactions.
They may react adversely at first, but that’s because they are caught off guard by your behavior. Likelihood is, they are wary because they have rarely been treated in this manner. Just continue on with your kindness, and soon enough they will react with positivity too.
While the effects may not be immediate and it may just be a small improvement in your eyes, in their universe it’s a huge shift. And through time, your relationship with the person will evolve into a different one altogether.
8. Avoid Them
Where all else fails, simply avoid them altogether. Reduce contact, limit conversations with him/her, hang out with others if it’s a group outing, or as a last resort – cut him/her out of your life. Even if both of you are from the same team and in the same workplace, you can’t be working with each other 24/7. Use a combination of all 7 approaches above in the times you absolutely have to interact, then just steer clear of him/her during the other times.
I have a friend who is particularly critical. Being around her feels suffocating. No matter what I talk about, she’d have a way to add a negative slant. For example, if I’m sharing about something I’m excited over, she’d reply with some lackluster comment, about how it’s not such a big deal or it’s just normal. In our day-to-day conversations, she barely has anything encouraging or positive to say, choosing to focus on the “bad” things. Even when it comes to seeking solace, it’s hard to get an empathetic response. Half the time, I feel like I need to ready myself for a negative comment. Because of this, she has been repelling her friends, including me, over the years.
Sometimes it may just be that both of you are not compatible as friends at this phase of your lives, and that both of you are better off apart from each other. If the relationship is causing you anguish, then do yourself and the person a favor by breaking it off.