Communicating Effectively: Receiving Criticism

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus


“It seems every time I turn around someone is complaining or griping at me,” fumed Colin “My boss picks apart every report I turn in. My wife doesn’t like the way I drive. The kids hate the food I cook.” Colin’s tendency to overreact to even minor criticisms caused him needless pain and suffering. A simple remark from his son David, “Dad, I don’t like mustard on my hot dog,” was met by a ten-minute tirade about “ungrateful kids.”


Who can go through life without being criticized? Nobody! Yet very few people know how to respond to criticism appropriately or how to deal with it effectively.  Basically, criticism can fall into three categories. It can be constructive, destructive, or irrelevant. Let’s take a look at them.

Irrelevant criticism can best be ignored. Some individuals are so critical of everything and everyone that they will throw in critical comments that may have nothing to do with the situation at hand: “…and your sister has knobby knees.” Irrelevant comments such as this are not worthy of a response, or of any emotional reaction on your part. In fact, ignoring them may encourage the criticizer to lighten up.

Destructive criticism usually comes in the form of an attack, a character assassination, a total put down. “You are a selfish pig!” “You are a disgusting person!” “You are stupid and incompetent!” If you are ever at the receiving end of such criticisms, try to realize that there is something wrong with the critic, with the person dishing out those remarks, not with you. A rational, sane, sensible person does not resort to extreme mud slinging. Whenever someone criticizes excessively, there is something psychologically wrong with him or her.

It is silly to take such criticisms to heart or to give them any credence. Rather, ask the critic to define his or her terms. “What is it exactly that makes you say I am stupid and incompetent?” The answer may sound something like this: “Well, you forgot to mail that important letter for me and you also made two errors when totaling the receipts for the day.” An assertive person might respond that she or he had made some mistakes, but that does not make him or her a totally stupid and incompetent human being.

The positive note on this topic, constructive criticism, can be useful because it speaks to the issues. “I think you need to be more attentive. You omitted to mail that important letter and you made two errors when adding up the receipts.” So if a criticism is constructive, learn from it. If it is destructive and you can do so without getting into deeper trouble, challenge the critic. If it is irrelevant, ignore it.

Many well intentioned people, otherwise quite sensible and highly intelligent, have no idea how to give constructive criticism. They may also be unaware when being negative. Instead of recoiling with pain or taking offense, it may be useful to try to instruct such a person. Hal turns to Ron and says, “You are obviously a half witted moron!” Ron inquires, “Hey Hal, do you know the difference between destructive and constructive criticism?” We do not expect Hal to roll over and say, “I apologize for insulting you. Please teach me how to change my style.” It is sufflcient to mention the difference between constructive and destructive alternatives. After delivering his rejoinder, Ron can walk away. If Hal is not half witted, he’ll get the message.


Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus and Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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