Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to an
Overly-critical Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/critical.htm

Updated  04-03-2015

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      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read in this article. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when the responder (a) gets their primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as "over-critical." It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      Do you know an adult or child who is overly critical of you and/or others? Note the difference between criticizing, complaining, and whining. How do you normally respond to this trait - specially if the person is criticizing your personality and/or behavior?









Blow up







Numb or tune out

Feel hurt and resentful

Whine / Complain


Feel guilty and/or angry

      Responses like these seldom meet both persons' needs. Can you think of someone who responds to criticism effectively? How would you describe the way they respond? How do you usually respond?


      Think of someone you feel is "often critical." How would you describe "criticism" to an average pre-teen? Here, it means "expressing an opinion about whether someone or something is good or bad, or right or wrong."

      What makes the difference between constructive and destructive criticism? How do you usually feel when someone criticizes you? When they criticize themselves? When they criticize other people? Four factors shape the answers...

what is being criticized - e.g. something that can be changed, or something that's beyond control;

how the criticism is expressed - kindly, harshly, sarcastically, rigidly, respectfully or not, indirectly or directly, calmly or aggressively, privately or publicly, humorously or soberly, etc.

what the critic's motives seem to be - e.g. to improve something, to complain or whine, to put someone or something down, to avoid painful reality or responsibility, etc.; and...

whether you feel the critic is qualified to judge or not.

We'll look at responses to five common situations: someone is...

  • over-critical "all the time"

  • excessively critical of you

  • excessively critical of themselves,

  • excessively critical about a child or another adult; and...

  • not qualified to criticize, in your opinion.

General Response Guidelines

      These options apply in all situations:

  • Keep your true Self in charge of your personality;

  • Get clear on (a) what bothers you - specifically, and on (b) what you need;

  • Check to see that you have a mutual-respect attitude and a two-person ''awareness bubble;''

  • Refresh yourself on the principles of (a) offering effective feedback, and (b) how to assert and listen effectively.

 If you aren't confident about these factors, delay your response until you are - or lower your expectations.

Specific Response Guidelines

      Notice the themes of these options, rather than using them as "absolutes."

Someone is Overcritical in General

      How do you feel around an adult or child who constantly finds fault with other people? S/He may or may not also whine, complain, and be gloomy, cynical, and/or pessimistic ("be negative"). Typical feelings may include frustration, impatience, weariness, dislike, "discomfort," and irritation. Whatever your feelings, name and use them in a respectful ''I''-message like this:

"(Name), when you need to be so critical of _________, I feel _______________, and its hard for me to listen to you."

You may add something like "I need you to cut back on (or ...be aware of...) criticizing so much." Or "If you keep doing that, I'm  going to call you on it every time." (or some other consequence). 

This is a more respectful and factual, and less provocative response than something like "Why are you so critical all the time?" and "You're critical of everyone. I get real tired of hearing that all the time."

       As with any assertion, expect the person to defend, explain, deny, minimize, explode, whine, play helpless ("I can't help it"), criticize you, etc. When they're done, use empathic listening to validate that you heard them. Then restate your assertive I-message calmly, firmly, with steady eye contact. 

Someone is Overcritical of You

       Do you know anyone whom you feel is excessively critical of you as a person, wo/man, mate, friend, child, parent, sibling, neighbor, or co-worker? How do you feel about that trait? How do you normally react? Does that improve or degrade your relationship?. Typical ineffective responses include enduring, arguing, blowing up, denying, hinting, counter-blaming, moaning, crying, raging, analyzing, explaining, and tuning out.

      Better response-options -

"(Name), are you aware of how often you criticize me?"

"Instead of criticizing me, I need you to tell me what you need from me."

"When you need to criticize me about (something specific), I feel ____________.

"So will you problem-solve (some unfilled need/s) with me?"

      A specially challenging case is when your parent or grandparent criticizes you without learning enough about you or accepting your right to be differ from them. Optional responses include...

"I see (the conflicted thing) differently than you do."

"We have a major values conflict here."

"Will you agree to disagree on this?"

"When you find fault with me without trying to understand my situation, I feel resentful, hurt, and angry."

"I feel your expectations of me are unrealistic."

See these wise guidelines for more perspective.

      If you have trouble remembering responses like these - or feel anxious, guilty, or ambivalent about them, a false self probably dominates you. See Lesson 1.

Someone is Overcritical of Themselves

       Most of us are self-critical at times. How do react when someone faults themselves? Do you want to reassure them? ("C'mon - everyone makes mistakes.") Correct them? ("Don't be so hard on  yourself!") Analyze? ("Why are you beating yourself up?" Discount their feelings? (You shouldn't feel so bad.")  People who are overly self-critical may be shame-based survivors of childhood trauma. If so, well -meant responses like these risk the person feeling discounted (unheard), misunderstood, guilty, and ashamed.

      Better response options:

"(Name), when you need to criticize yourself so often, I feel _____________."

"(Name), when you need to criticize yourself so often, it's hard to be with you."

"I feel badly when your Inner Critic and Perfectionist need to shame your Inner Kids."

"When you fault yourself all the time, I feel frustrated and lose respect for you."

"Instead of criticizing yourself so much, I need you to ______________."

"I don't accept your apology, because I'm not offended by your behavior."

For response-options to someone who feels inferior, see this after you finish here.

Someone is Overcritical of a Child or Another Adult

       Can you think of someone who seems extra-critical of a particular person? How do you feel about that? Detached? Judgmental? Protective? Ambivalent? Argumentative? Righteous? Resigned? Your reaction probably depends on who the people are and what their relationship to you is - e.g. you'd feel different if your sister was overcritical of her child compared to a stranger criticizing your town's Mayor.

      A key factor in choosing a response here is what you expect of yourself in this situation - your integrity. If your moral code is "It's none of my business," then no overt response is needed. If your moral code is something like "That's not fair!" or "That's child abuse!,'' you need to respond to honor your values and preserve your self respect.

      Because "unfair criticism" and "verbal abuse" are emotionally provocative, confirming that your true Self is guiding you is specially important here. Otherwise you risk sparking a fight or uproar. In important situations...

  • affirm everyone's personal rights,

  • review what constitutes verbal abuse and the steps to make an effective assertion,

  • avoid divisive Persecutor - Victim - Rescuer triangles, and...

  • get clear on...

    • what specific needs you're filling by responding (what outcome you seek), and...

    • whether you have a mutual-respect attitude or not. If you don't, suspect a false self has disabled your Self, and lower your expectations. 

These important preparations will probably take just a few seconds.

      Response Options:

"(Name), sounds like you're really (upset / angry / disapproving / frustrated / disappointed / disgusted, etc.) with _____________." This is a respectful affirmation, not condoning their behavior.

"Are you aware of how often you criticize _______________?

"What needs are you trying to fill by being so critical of ________?"

"When you need to be so vocally critical of _________, I feel ___________...
  Option: ..."and I lose respect for you."

"What do you need (or expect) from ______________ (the criticized person)?"

"Are you aware that you're promoting excessive shame and guilt in this child?"

"(Name), I feel you're verbally abusing this child. If you don't reduce your excessive criticism now, I'm going to (take a specific action)."  Don't say this unless you mean it!

      With any responses like these, expect the other person to react with denial, resentment, anger, disrespect, blame, explanations, or justifications. Use empathic listening with such responses - and then repeat your response calmly and with steady eye contact. repeat this cycle until something changes. 

      Again, these are response options, not absolutes. The themes are to (1) honor your integrity, (2) respectfully give the critic the chance to judge the impact of  their attitude and behavior, and (3) possibly protect the criticized one. Can you imagine responding like this to an excessively critical adult or child? If not - what's the risk?

      Another common situation occurs when you feel...

Someone is Not Qualified to Criticize

      In your opinion, what does it take to be qualified? Can a non-parent criticize a parent? Can a middle-class adult criticize a homeless person? Dose a Catholic woman from Idaho know enough to criticize an Egyptian Muslim man? Can an eight-year old child criticize a policewoman? Is an atheist qualified to criticize a Buddhist?

      Can you think of examples in your life where someone you felt wasn't qualified criticized someone or something? Criticized you? What did you feel, and how did you react? Native Americans advise us to "Walk a mile in someone's moccasins (before you judge them)."

Response Options

       The easiest choice is to keep your opinion to yourself - specially if the criticism doesn't involve you or someone you care about. If it does, check yourself for a mutual-respect attitude. Then...

  • use respectful empathic listening to demonstrate you hear the critic clearly - e.g. "So you think my sister was criminal for having an abortion." (a statement, not a question).

  • then with good eye contact, assert your opinion:

"(Name), you don't know my sister or the circumstances causing her and her husband to choose abortion. I don't think you're qualified to judge them."

  • Expect the critic to "resist" (argue, debate, explain, defend, disagree...), and use empathic listening to show that you heard them. Then restate your opinion calmly, firmly, and without wordy explanations.

      Other options:

"(Name), when you criticize ______________ without enough information or experience to justify your opinion, I lose respect for you." Or...

"When you need to make black/white criticisms without trying to understand the other person's situation, I tune you out." Or...

"When you make disrespectful (or uninformed) judgments of ___________, I don't take your opinion seriously." Or more bluntly...

"I don't think you know enough to have an opinion about _______."  Or...

"What needs are you filling by criticizing ____________ without knowing more?" Or...

"(Name), I don't agree with you on that." or "I see it differently." Or...

"I suspect your false self is making that criticism without knowing enough about it."

      Notice that these responses avoid a lose-lose argument about "fairness" and a "Yes, but..." debate, and an inflammatory "I think you're wrong (or unreasonable), because..." challenge.. How do these responses compare to you how you usually react to an unqualified critic? Can you think of someone you'd like to try these with? How do you think the critic would react to each of them?


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond effectively to five common situations with excessively-critical people. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your needs, feelings, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

 Do you usually have these requisites?

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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