Assertiveness: ACTIVE responding to complaints, criticism and put-downs

Receiving Complaints or Criticism

Often the unassertive person indiscriminately accepts complaints / criticism and apologizes for events even when s/he cannot be held accountable for these. On the other hand, people who become highly aroused and livid when they receive complaints are behaving aggressively, not assertively.


1. Distinguish whether the criticism is valid, invalid or nothing but a thinly veiled put-down. If the criticism is vague or ambiguous, it may be helpful to ask the person to be more specific. You may share your feelings with the person making the criticism so that the person will know the effect the criticism is having on you.

Valid criticism is criticism that you know to be legitimate; it is true and applies to you. Invalid criticism includes comments and statements that you know to be untrue.

2. Don’t accept unjust complaints just to keep the peace. If you think someone’s criticism is excessive or unfair, you can say so or you can call a halt to it. State your viewpoint with conviction, not apologetically.

3. If you are at fault, apologize briefly (don’t apologize endlessly).

4. If the criticism is fair, you may find it useful to ask for specific suggestions and alternatives. Try to move toward the future and turn the person criticizing you in the same direction.

5. If you feel there is some truth in a criticism (and you feel comfortable with getting the criticism) you can use the skill of Active Listening [discussed below] to prompt further criticism in order to either use the information if it turns out that your critic is trying to be constructive, or to expose it if your critic is being purely manipulative or vicious.

By taking the initiative and in a sense inviting negative criticism, you put yourself in a much stronger position to handle it. You choose the moment so you are not caught off your guard.

6. Use the Broken Record technique if a discussion has passed the point of usefulness or when dealing with an antagonistic person. Coolly and calmly repeat your statement over and over, making sure you don’t show anger or irritation. Don’t fall for giving excuses or reasons, or explaining yourself.

7. Accept the substance of a valid complaint, but not the vindictiveness of the complainant. If you have been unacceptably insulted, terminate the discussion on the spot.

8. Active Listening / Reflection [discussed below] can reduce the sting of hostile criticism or constructive criticism.

Dealing with Put-Downs

A put-down is (verbal and nonverbal) aggressiveness that is meant to hurt and humiliate – aggressive criticism, the caustic or barbed remark, being rudely ignored, a hostile expression, etc. It is often executed in the company of other people or at other times of personal vulnerability.

Your response to the put-down will influence its effect on you and the aggressor’s future behaviour toward you.

Verbal self-defense

1. Respond, even if you are not sure whether s/he meant it or not. If it felt like a put-down, respond as to a put-down. Respond as soon as possible (this doesn’t have to be lightening fast). Respond calmly, rationally and assertively.

2. Put the other person on the defensive – let her / him explain. Valuable techniques for this are Active Listening / Reflection (a form of active listening), which can include questioning, paraphrasing and summarizing. Reflection can involve reflection of content (what is said) and reflection of underlying feeling. Examples:

“What do you mean ….?”
“Can you be more specific / explain ….?”
“Can you give me some examples ….?”
“You seem aggressive today …. What’s the matter with you?”
“Does that remark / behaviour / expression mean you are feeling angry?”
“I’m not sure how to take that …. Is it meant to be aggressive?”

If you show you’re afraid of a dog, he’ll take it as an invitation to bite you.

Related posts
Assertiveness: Introduction
Assertiveness: Our Rights
Assertiveness: PASSIVE responding to complaints, criticism and put-downs

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