How to Deal with Critical People

Date: February 1, 2017      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source:  Mark Goulston, MD, Goulston Group      Print:

Being criticized can bring out the worst in us. It’s easy to become defensive…get drawn into an argument about who is right…and/or seethe quietly.

If you have a chronically critical person (or several) in your life, your first goal should be to stop repeated fights about the criticism and reach the point where you can have an actual discussion.

To do that, I recommend a counterintuitive response to criticism called –assertive humility—taking responsibility instead of becoming defensive or -counterattacking. This approach gives you a surprising amount of power and dignity in the face of criticism. Rather than criticizing the critic or trying to disprove his criticism, you offer an unsolicited apology.


How this works: When you are criticized, pause for a moment so that you do not react impulsively. Then say, “What you just said made me realize that I owe you an apology.” The other person will be completely dumbfounded—it is likely that he/she has never received a spontaneous apology before.

Continue with, “I want to apologize for never making the effort to find out how you came to look at this issue the way you do. I was too busy reacting or trying to prove my point of view. That was disrespectful and -counterproductive. If you are willing—and you don’t have to be—I’d like to fix that right now by having you tell me how you came to think about this the way you do. I will do my best to listen and understand your point of view.”

Adapt the language above using words that you would naturally use in conversation. It is important to keep your tone matter-of-fact and to have a genuine desire to understand. If you come across as phony or patronizing, the technique will backfire.

Turning a critical statement toward you into an apology from you is effective because the other person is expecting a defensive reaction from you. This disarms the person, and at that point, you have a much better chance of actually discussing the issue rather than just fighting.

Example: A husband feels that his wife has been criticizing him about -everything. She says that he’s not eating right, not exercising enough and has been moody and sullen. The husband offers an apology and an invitation for discussion, as described above. The wife is likely to feel stunned and might even look like a deer caught in headlights. She might respond by speaking constructively about her issues with her husband’s behavior. But even if she doesn’t, this gives her husband an opening to try to engage her in constructive conversation—possibly for the first time in a long time.


If apologizing seems like too big a leap for you, remind yourself that this is a technique—and ask yourself how much dealing with the critical person in the usual way is costing you in stress, anxiety and exhaustion. Being defensive or arguing with a chronic critic won’t work because you won’t win. Why not try an approach that has a better chance of working?

Source: Mark Goulston, MD, founder and CEO of the Goulston Group, a consulting company in Santa Monica, California, that helps business owners think outside the box. A psychiatrist and an FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer, he has written numerous books including Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone and Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life.

  • Jody Agerton

    wow, exactly what i came to receive this past weekend when i could not bear the pattern that has been repeating itself for the past 20 years between my father’s wife and myself… good to be validated here. Thank you for the advice. i shall add it to my personal awareness to grow even more!