Lowering Your Defenses
1Remind yourself it’s not a zero-sum game. No one likes to be criticized. It can be very hard to hear how you’ve failed to meet your partner’s expectations – you might feel unfairly blamed, misunderstood, or attacked. However, think about the reason you and your partner are communicating in the first place.
- Keep in mind that your relationship shouldn’t be a power-struggle. The fact that your partner has an honest criticism doesn’t mean that you are “losing.”
- Tell yourself, in the same way, that criticism isn’t a zero-sum game. The point is to establish some give and take and hopefully improve your relationship.
2Don’t interrupt. You’ll never be able to accept honest criticism from a partner unless you start to lower your defenses, listen, and empathize. Give your partner the floor, for one thing. Don’t interrupt to deny, refute, or turn back the criticism. This is a huge sign that you’re being defensive.
- Try this trick: count to ten every time that you are tempted to interrupt. There’s a fair chance that once you’re done the moment will have passed and your point won’t matter anymore. Count higher if you still feel the urge, to twenty or thirty.
- Stop yourself deliberately and apologize if you do interrupt. Cut yourself off, express regret for your rudeness, and let your partner resume.
3Disarm other defensive tactics. People have a whole arsenal of defensive tactics that they use to ignore or deflect criticism. Learn to recognize what these are, how you use them, and how to disarm them. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be better able to listen and create an open dialogue for honest criticism.
- Do you placate or outright deny, saying “Sure honey, whatever you say” or “No, I don’t do anything of the sort”? Or do you ignore the criticism or stonewall: “Well, that’s just how I am. Deal with it.” None of these tactics allow for an exchange of honest criticism.
- Some defensive tactics are less obvious and rely on manipulation. They can include invalidation – “Why are you making such a big deal out of this? – as well as guilting, for instance, “Why are you being so cruel? What about how I feel?” Other tactics shift responsibility to the criticizer: “Maybe I wouldn’t have to be this way if you were nicer.”
- Notice any other tactics you might use, like excuses or neutralizing the criticism – “I didn’t mean to upset you. You’ve taken it the wrong way.”
4Pay attention to your non-verbal signals. One big way that people communicate how they feel is through non-verbal signals like body language. Note how you’re carrying yourself, not just what you’re saying to your partner – this means body language, tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, and how far away you’re sitting.
- Maintain eye contact with your partner. Looking away will make you seem standoffish, disinterested, or ashamed.
- Try not to fold your arms, either, or to face away from your partner. This gives the impression that you’re defensive and closed off.
- Be aware of your of your facial expression and try to remain neutral. A raised eyebrow or pursed lips can signal judgement or disagreement to your partner.
- Use a normal, steady, conversational tone of voice. Raising your voice signals that you are emotional and seeking to escalate the conversation.
5Ask to postpone the conversation. You may find that you can’t lower your defenses to give your partner a fair hearing. If you’re in a heightened emotional state, you might ask to excuse yourself and resume later. After all, neither of you will get much out of a defensive back and forth.
- Say something politely to excuse yourself. For instance, “I’m really sorry Terry. I want to have this talk, but I’m not feeling up to it just now. Can we continue in an hour or two?”
- Be sure to affirm the importance of the conversation, too, e.g. “I know this is important and something you want to say. I just don’t feel so calm right now. Let’s try later, OK?”
- Take responsibility for initiating the conversation again once you’ve calmed down and approach your partner to let them know you are ready to continue.
- Postponing the conversation does not mean avoiding it. In fact, chronic postponing can be another defensive tactic: “You’re going to bring that up again? I’m too busy to talk about it now.”
Listening to Criticism
1Try not to take it personally. Yes, this is a big challenge. How can you avoid taking your partner’s criticisms personally, especially when they are about you and your behavior? Think of it this way: your partner isn’t criticizing to attack or belittle you but speaking out with love to improve your relationship. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
- Try to understand why you feel personally attacked. Is it because you feel like your partner is being unfair or exaggerating? Maybe you feel insecure or ashamed?
- Try also to think about why your partner would raise criticisms. Your romantic partner is probably not trying to make you look bad or shame you, but just wants to reach you. Honest criticism is about communication, love, and growth.
2Hold your tongue and listen. There are often times when you’re being criticized that you want to snap back and explain yourself. Try to use self-control. Listen and, as said, don’t interrupt. Interjecting every few seconds with “but…but” only makes it seem like you don’t care and don’t want to listen to what your partner says.
- Hold your tongue if you have the urge to say “but…” If it helps, try actually biting down gently on your tongue or on your lower lip.
- If you must say something, ask questions that make you express what your partner is saying instead, like “I just want to get this straight, you don’t think that I help around the house enough?” or “Do I understand correctly, you think we spend too much time with my parents?”
3Ask for concrete examples. You’ll understand and digest your partner’s honest criticism better if, instead of getting angry, you ask questions. Ask your partner to be more specific, to give examples, and to elaborate. This will help you to actually listen to the criticism and to show that you are interested in your partner’s views.
- Try saying something like, “What is it exactly that makes you feel I’m too emotionally distant, Alex?” or “Can you give me a specific example of when you felt I was being selfish?”
- Keep in mind that you’re asking questions to understand your partner’s criticism. You’re not asking so that you can turn the criticism around or nitpick. This is another defensive tactic you should try to disarm.
4Resist the urge to counter-attack. Accepting your partner’s criticism will take honesty and openness. You won’t get anywhere if your immediate reaction is to lash out and criticize back. This, too, is a defensive tactic and will only escalate the situation, leading to frustration.
- Try not to give in to the temptation to attack your partner, e.g. “You don’t think I help out enough around here? I never see you cleaning the garage and yard!” or “You’re being unreasonable. You do lots of things that annoy me, too!”
- Don’t deflect the criticism by trying to justify or normalize it, either. For example: “I don’t see what the problem is. My friend Jen goes out drinking every night of the week.”
Empathizing with Your Partner
1Listen to your partner’s words. Being able to accept honest criticism requires you to show empathy for your partner. This means to stand in your partner’s shoes and try to see and feel things as he or she does, if only partially. To do this, try using the techniques of active listening as an aid.
- First of all, focus your attention on what your partner is saying. You don’t need to say or do anything. Just listen and allow your partner to talk.
- Listening means just that – no talking for a while. You shouldn’t try to interject your opinion. Instead, send verbal and non-verbal signals that you’re listening by things like nodding, acknowledging important points, or by saying things like, “Mmmhmmm,” “Yes,” and “I see.”
2Suspend judgement. Empathy requires you to temporarily leave your own mental space and try to enter your partner’s and suspend your own perspective and opinions. This is definitely a challenge. But, by doing it you’ll be better able to focus on your partner’s feelings and appreciate the honest criticism.
- Suspending your judgement doesn’t mean you have to accept your partner’s viewpoint. You can decide to disagree. But, for now, it means you need to push away your own views, opinions, and reactions.
- Empathizing with your partner involves affirmation, too. Don’t disregard your partner’s criticisms by insisting that they are wrong or not important, like by saying “Well, that just isn’t a big deal” or “Oh, get over it!”
- Keep in mind that the point of listening isn’t always to offer a solution, either. Your partner has an honest criticism. There may be a solution in the future, but the key thing now is to hear your partner out.
3Repeat your partner’s meaning. Repeating what your partner says to you, in your own words, will help you to engage with the criticism actively. Stay respectful, for one. Then, restate and reformulate your partner’s points to be sure that you’ve understood correctly.
- Say that your partner makes a point in your discussion. Try to repeat back what you’ve heard in different words. For instance, “OK, what I hear is that you think I’m being a bit selfish. Is that correct?” or “What I think you to mean is that you’re frustrated by my emotional distance.”
- You can add questions to expand the discussion, as well. For example, you might say, “What is it about my relationship with my mom that you find so frustrating?” This will help you both communicate further.
4Affirm your partner. Lastly, try to let your partner know that you have heard by signaling this verbally. Say that you’ve listened and understood the criticism and will give it serious thought. Even if you don’t agree with what your partner has said, at least affirm that it is important. This way, you leave the door open for future discussions.
- For example, you can say something along the lines of “I don’t necessarily agree, Tasha, but I respect your point of view.” Or, “Thank you for being honest with me, Juan. I’ll consider what you’ve said.”
- Try to summarize your partner’s viewpoint, along with your own so that you are on the same page. For example, “I see, so when I don’t change the toilet paper roll you feel like I’m being lazy and taking advantage, and to me it’s just something I don’t think about doing and don’t see why it’s important. Does that sum it up?”
- If you both agree on your positions, try to come up with a workable solution you can both stick to. For example, “Ok, I could see how my actions could come off as being lazy, how about I put up a reminder in the bathroom to put on a new roll when it gets low?”
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