8 Helpful Ways to Deal with Critical People

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(Image: Elke Sisco)

Imagine this. You are in a good mood today. There’s something you are really happy about and you tell your friend to share the excitement. However, your friend listens in nonchalance as you gush away. Worse still, he (or she) says that what you’re talking about isn’t that great. Talk about a wet blanket! Before you know it, your mood has flipped 180 degrees from being in a happy state to one of annoyance.

Does this sound familiar? The above behavior is typical of critical people. Critical people can be real downers, like energy vampires. No matter what you say, they will always find some way to derail the conversation. You can’t even remember the last time they gave a compliment or encouragement. They tend to scrutinize and zoom into every little problem, after which they harp on these problems and offer unwanted (negative, unconstructive) opinions.

If that’s not enough, critical people are often ready to discourage and criticize. They seem to have a mental filter that blocks out whatever is good. Rather than praise, they can only criticize.

8 Helpful Ways To Deal With Critical People

Naturally, critical people aren’t the first people you want to hang out with. While you can try to get out of their way, you are bound to run into one or two of them at work or in school. Here are my 8 tips to handle them:

1. Don’t Take It Personally

Most of the time, their criticisms reflect more about them than you. They react in this way because of certain beliefs and frameworks they have about life. You may think that the critical person is all out to get you, but it’s likely that he/she acts this way to everyone else too.

Here’s one simple way to check:

  1. Think about your common friends with this person. If possible, identify people with the same standing as you so that it’s comparable.
  2. Be present the next time they are with each other. 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 it’s 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 her uninvited criticism.

But when I observed her treatment of our friends, I realized that she did this with others too. Same comments, same criticisms, same hangups, even though I never saw anything wrong with them. 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 own inner frameworks. This was a liberating realization. Since then, I stopped taking anything she said personally and was able to objectify the situation.

2. Objectify the Comments – Understand the Underlying Message

Sometimes I feel that critical people are just misunderstood. They may be trying to offer an opinion that comes across negatively due to their lack of tact. At times this swirls into a big misunderstanding. They get labeled as *ssholes even though they aren’t trying to be so.

Focus on “what” is being communicated (the message) rather than “how” communication is done (the words used, the tone). The latter ensures that the message is conveyed correctly, but ultimately it is the message that matters. You may be surprised, but sometimes critical people are just clueless about how they come across until they see themselves in action. If you take 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 and get down to their message. What are they trying to say? Why are they saying this? Are they really trying to be *ssholes or do they mean well?

For example, say you want to start an online business and your friend (an experienced digital entrepreneur) says that you will likely fail. Maybe he’s trying to warn you of the overwhelming obstacles. Instead of being defensive, probe and ask “Why do you say that?” Understand and ask for advice.

Behind their words may lie great insights. If you can get past the “how” and focus on the “what,” you gain access to valuable feedback for improvement. Two powerful things occur here:

  1. You move a step ahead in your journey of conscious living. You no longer behave reactively to others’ words but look at the underlying meaning.
  2. You become more knowledgeable as you know the real intent of their feedback. You can then extract and grow from this knowledge. This can’t happen if you are held back by emotions.

I used to work in a multi-national firm where communication was straight and to the point. People were very curt sometimes, especially when caught in pressing situations and tight timelines. Some managers were very frank and would not hold back on calling out weaknesses and mistakes without sugar coating.

While some might gasp at this, there’s really no need to feel negative as it’s simply how things were. Of course it’d be ideal if everyone communicates tactfully, but ultimately you can’t change how others act. You can, however, change how you perceive something. What matters here is the message the person is trying to convey. The exception is if the person is outright disrespectful — this is a different story altogether.

Needless to say, the folks who chose to see the comments negatively put themselves through unnecessary unhappiness. The ones who sieved through the words and got to the message were able to improve quickly based on feedback. My experience working there made me more perceptive because rather than focus on the exact words said, I listen to what the person is communicating. The ability to actively “listen” beyond words is crucial for all of us to connect and build strong relationships.

3. Take it as a Source of Honest Feedback

Honesty can never be underrated. Take their criticisms as a source of honest feedback. At least with them, what you see is what you get.

I’ve come across seemingly nice people before and while the friendship starts off on a high note, they later turn out to be fake and dishonest (backstabbing, using the connection for their agendas). This puts an abrupt end to the friendship. On the other hand, I have friends who are uncomfortably blunt when we first met, but turn out to be gems later as they are reliable and true to their words.

While the best case scenario is to meet people who are honest and tactful, if made to choose, I would rather know a blunt person than be with someone who is seemingly nice but fake. Some people pretend to be nice and supportive when they don’t agree and just conceal their misgivings. At the very least let’s appreciate critical people for being direct.

4. Address Your Discomfort Within

Just as their criticism reflects something about their inner frameworks, our discomfort with their criticism reflects something about our inner frameworks too, especially if we keep getting bothered by it.

If I ever feel uncomfortable about others’ comments, I’ll look within to understand why. Chances are it has struck a chord with an inner belief. The next step is to discover what it is.

I recommend to do this with everything we face in life. Sources of discomfort should be seen as a compass for growth. As I share 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 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 person. But as you keep drilling down, the answers change from being external-focused to internal-focused.

This means the discomfort is not because of the person; it’s because of something in you. It could be a similar situation in the past when someone said the same thing, or a negative belief you have about such comments. The final answer should help you gain closure on your discomfort and help you 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 talking about the topic. Critical people like to dispense their opinions even when not asked, so make sure you don’t mention it in front of them.

Some of my friends complain about how their critical friends put them down all the time. Yet for some reason, they keep putting themselves at the receiving end of their criticisms by talking about the same things to those critical people. In a way they probably do so subconsciously for acceptance and validation as it’s hard to get encouragement from such people.

But remember that the default behavior of critical people is to criticize, not to praise. So if you talk to them about something in hopes that they will encourage and praise you, stop doing it. You have seen their critical behavior before, so it shouldn’t surprise you if they continue to criticize 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 to blame but yourself!

6. Disengage / 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 invite more of such comments from him/her. No sooner will this become a heated, ugly debate — 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 the option to ignore. Give a simple 1-2 line response, one that acknowledges receipt of the comment but doesn’t engage further in the discussion. And if the person presses on, 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 control of the situation.

Just as the critical people need to take responsibility for their comments, we have to take responsibility too. With every occurrence, there is always the event and our perception of the event. We can’t change how people 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 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 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. 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. Chances are 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, to them 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, 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 work in the same place, you can’t be working with each other 24/7. Use a combination of all 7 tips above in the times you absolutely have to interact, and 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 about, 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 instead to focus on the “bad” things. Even when seeking solace, it’s hard to get an empathetic response. Half the time I feel like I need to brace 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 in 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.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] How to Deal With Critical People

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