8 Helpful Ways to Deal with Critical People

How to Deal with Critical People

Imagine this. You are in a good mood today. You just received a piece of great news that you’re excited about and you tell your friend in joy. However, she listens in disinterest as you gush away. Worse still, she says that what you’re talking about isn’t that great! Before you know it, you have switched from being happy to feeling discouraged.

Has this happened to you before? It has to me, and unfortunately, this behavior is quite typical of critical people. No matter what you say, critical people will always find a way to bring down the conversation. You can’t remember the last time they gave you a compliment or positive feedback. They tend to scrutinize and nitpick on every little issue, after which they would harp on it and offer unwanted, negative thoughts.

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If that’s not enough, critical people are often ready to discourage you. It seems that they have a filter that blocks out whatever that is good and focuses on the bad. Rather than praise, they seem to only know how to criticize.

8 Helpful Ways To Deal With Critical People

Naturally, critical people aren’t the first people you want to hang out with — yet it’s common to run into them in life. Here are my 8 tips to handle critical people. 🙂

1. Don’t Take It Personally

Oftentimes, criticisms by critical people tend to reflect more about them than you. They react critically because of their own beliefs about life. You may think that this critical person is all out to get you, but it’s likely that he/she acts this way to other people too.

Here’s one simple way to check:

  1. Do you have any common friends with this person? Or do you know other people who interact with this person?
  2. Be present the next time he/she is with them. Observe how this critical person acts with them. How does he/she behave? Does he/she give the same pattern of comments? Focuses on the negative things? Does he/she come across as critical? If it’s a yes, then you got your answer.

In the past, I used to take a critical friend’s comments to heart. I’d wonder why she would be so discouraging toward the things I said and would feel defensive whenever she gave me uninvited criticism.

But when I observed her treatment of the people we hung out with, I realized that she did the same thing with others too. Same negative comments and hangups, even though I never saw anything wrong with what they were doing/saying. There was also a trend in the kind of things she would harp on.

It was then that I realized that it wasn’t about me; her criticisms were about her own frameworks in life. This was a liberating realization. Since then, I stopped taking anything she said personally and was able to objectify the situation.

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2. Objectify the Comments – Understand the Underlying Message

Some critical people may just be misunderstood. They may be trying to offer good advice that comes across negatively due to their lack of tact. Sometimes, this turns into a big misunderstanding. The critical people get labeled as assholes even though they aren’t trying to be so.

Focus on “what” is being communicated (the message) rather than “how” the communication is being done (the words, the tone used). You may be surprised, but sometimes critical people are clueless about how they come across until they get a play-by-play of how they acted!

Filter their words and drill into their message. Ask yourself: “What are they trying to say? Why are they saying this? Are they really trying to be jerks, or do they mean well?”

For example, say you want to start an online business. Your friend (an experienced online entrepreneur) says that you shouldn’t start at all, because you’re likely going to fail. Maybe he’s trying to warn you of the overwhelming obstacles, given his extensive experience online, and having seen the number of people who have failed in trying to do the same thing. Instead of being defensive, probe into his words. Ask him, “Why do you say that?” Understand and learn from his wisdom. Who knows? He may have some great insights on what you should do to succeed!

If you can get past the “how” and focus on the “what,” you gain access to a wealth of information in people’s minds. Two things happen here:

  1. You no longer react in a knee-jerk fashion to other people’s words but instead focus on the underlying meaning. You become more perceptive as a person.
  2. You become more knowledgeable since you focus on the message, not how the message is communicated. You are able to learn from interpreting and applying what people are trying to say. This can’t happen if you are always hung up over how someone says something.

I used to work at a multinational firm where people would speak in a very direct way. Some people were very curt at times, especially when faced with tight deadlines. Some managers were frank and would not hold back on telling you your issues directly. As they say, if you can’t take the heat, you should get out of the kitchen.

Working in such a place made me more perceptive because rather than focus on the exact words said (which tends to miss the point), I learned to listen to what someone is communicating. “Listen” meaning to listen beyond the words that are articulated, and to understand the message within. This is especially crucial in today’s world as different cultures and people have different styles of communicating and expressing their messages, and it’s important that we learn to “listen” to understand what each other is saying, and to connect as humans.

3. Take it as a Source of Honest Feedback

One way to look at critical people is to take their criticism as a source of honesty. At least with them, what you see is what you get.

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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. On the other hand, I have met oddly blunt, critical people who turn out to be pretty nice folks.

Does it have to be a choice between critical and honest people, and nice and fake people? No, of course not — this is a false dichotomy. People can be nice and honest too, and we shouldn’t excuse rudeness when it happens, especially people who are rude for no reason. It’s just that when you are dealing with a critical person, one way to look at it is that at least the person is being upfront with his/her feelings. You can ask him/her for an opinion and you know he/she will likely tell you what he/she thinks, without sugarcoating or withholding facts, and that’s helpful when you want direct feedback or the harshest kind of feedback to help you improve.

4. Address Your Discomfort Within

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

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

I recommend doing this with everything we face in life. Sources of discomfort should be seen as compasses for growth. Something I often say this: “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 drill down to the root cause. The first set of answers will be directed at the external world, such as issues with the person, issues with other people. But as you keep drilling down, the answers change from being external-focused to being internal-focused.

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This means that the discomfort is not really 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 you get from this exercise should help you gain closure on your discomfort and take action on the situation, 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 talking about the topic in general, which then opens the window for the person to share his/her opinions.

Some of my friends often complain about how their critical friends put them down all the time. Yet for some reason, they keep putting themselves in the same situation — i.e. at the receiving end of their criticisms — by talking about the same thing to those people. I can understand why though. Sometimes we do this to get acceptance from critical people because it’s so hard to get encouragement from them. For example, with critical parents. With a critical partner. Or with a critical friend.

But if a person often criticizes what you say, then he/she is likely going to still do that — at least until he/she decides to change his/her behavior. So if you talk to them in the hopes that they will encourage and praise you, stop. You have seen their critical behavior before, so it shouldn’t surprise you if they continue to criticize what you say. Albert Einstein once said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, and he’s right. If you want a different outcome, then change how you act. Stop putting yourself in the same situation, and stop subjecting yourself to their criticism by simply not talking about the things that you’re sensitive about to them — for the time being anyway, until you are ok with their criticism.

6. Disengage / Ignore

Here’s an insightful story I’ve heard before, but never get 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 criticism when you’re not asking for them. Their criticism may be out of line and done in poor taste. One way you can respond is to retaliate in anger.

However, since the person likely has some angst to be voluntarily dispensing negativity in the first place, your retaliation will likely invite more of such comments. No sooner would this become a heated, ugly debate — one which is unlikely to end well.

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As they say about online negativity, “Don’t feed the trolls.” If you can’t stop them from voicing their opinions, then you have the option to ignore them. Give a simple 1-2 line response, one that acknowledges that you have heard the comment, but doesn’t engage further in the discussion. And if the person presses on, just ignore him/her. At this point, it’s obvious that he/she wants to ignite a response in you. By not doing so, you maintain control of the situation.

Just as the critical people need to take responsibility for their comments, we have to take responsibility for our reaction 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 the movie Peaceful Warrior a while back and there is a quote that I really like:

“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 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 of others, chances are they treat themselves with the same, if not a higher, level of criticism. They aren’t giving themselves the love that 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 the areas you know they can benefit from. Get to know them personally.

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 over time, your relationship with the person may evolve into a different one. Of course, if all they do is remain an energy suck, or take your kindness for granted, then you should cut them off and stop letting them drain your energy.

8. Avoid Them

When all else fails, avoid them. Reduce contact, limit conversations with him/her, hang out with other people if you guys are in a group, or as a last resort — cut him/her out of your life. Even if both of you work at the same place, you can’t be working with each other all the time. Use the 7 tips above in the times when you absolutely have to interact, and just steer clear of him/her in the other times.

I used to have a close friend who was particularly critical. Being around her felt suffocating. No matter what I said, she would have a way to add a negative slant. For example, if I was sharing about something I was excited about, she’d reply with some lackluster comment, about how it was not such a big deal or it was just normal. In our day-to-day conversations, she would barely have anything encouraging to say, choosing to focus on the negative things. Even when seeking solace, it was hard to get an empathetic response. Half the time I felt like I need to brace myself for a negative comment when talking to her.

Sometimes it may just be that both of you are not compatible as friends in this phase of your lives, and that 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, or at least reducing contact. Allow both of you to grow as individuals first, and see if you are a better fit as friends down the road.

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

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