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Do you ever notice yourself getting defensive?

Here’s how I’ve seen it work in myself and others: Someone in either a social or a professional setting says something we perceive as critical. Maybe they feel we were taking the floor too often or directing a group too much. Maybe it’s not even a critical comment, but we take it that way. Whatever it is, we’re very unhappy to receive the comment.

For those of us who have a tendency towards defensiveness our reaction often unfolds like this: How dare they! We get tight-chested, maybe red-faced. We say to ourselves, I’m not listening to any more of this, and certainly not accepting unsolicited advice. Obviously they don’t know what they’re talking about. We might spend the rest of the meeting, party, or day feeling closed off and upset.

I’ll be the first to admit that if a comment or feedback is delivered aggressively, it’s difficult to keep calm. And let’s be clear: when we’re assailed with abusive or aggressive language or behaviours, it’s completely normal and healthy to guard and take care of ourselves. But if we’re given constructive criticism professionally and with respect, it’s usually in our best interests to listen to it. Yet often we shut ourselves off once we hear anything that sounds like a critique.

The space between stimulus and response

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl

Apparently humans are among very few creatures able to leave space between stimulus and response. What a gift! When we are exposed to a stimulus, we have a choice whether to respond immediately, or to breathe, take a step back, reflect, and then react more thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t cultivate that space. We indulge in our knee-jerk reactions, even though they can be destructive to all parties.

What if we learn to take a breath after we’ve been hurt? What if we learn to recognize the courage that it takes for someone to tell us their truth—professionally, respectfully? What if we can recognize the courage it takes to listen to that truth—professionally, respectfully? And if we disagree with that truth, what happens if we can pause long enough to recognize it as an opinion deserving of respect, even if we don’t accept its validity?

Staying open

If we take the opportunity to sit inside the space after stimulus for a moment, and then choose to stay open and continue the conversation instead of lashing out and closing up, the magic of Genuine Conversations begins to happen.

Often, if we’re listening instead of going on the defensive, we’ll hear the person in front of us say something that balances out their critique and establishes a connection. If we’re open enough to accept this offering, we are then given another gift: the space to answer frankly in turn.

As these conversations happen over time, we can hear the critiques leveled our way and begin to shift our behaviour. Taking a beat can become second nature. We can develop a new baseline in our workplace conversations or those in a social setting. We can find a more honest and open starting point.

We can begin to see people we’ve previously labelled as difficult in a different light—and if we’re ready for quirks and not constantly getting our backs up, we can interact genuinely with a lot more people. Life opens up!

Of course, not all criticism has a hidden gem of positivity within it. Sometimes, criticism is just negative, and even hurtful. In instances where there is nothing to connect with in someone’s criticism and we are left only with pain, sadness, and anger, we might follow the advice of Zen master Tich Nhat Hanh. When we experience such difficult emotions, he advises us to stay in the gap between stimulus and response and practice three steps. First recognize the feeling. Note, for instance, I am experiencing anger. Second, accept the feeling. Don’t struggle against it or get caught up in it.

Just by being with it…

Lastly, we calm the feeling down by “just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby.” This is something that can be done after the encounter if the moment itself proves to be too powerful. When we’re able to sit in the space between stimulus and response instead of being ruled and overwhelmed by our strong emotions, we really are, as Viktor Frankl claims, practicing freedom.

To be clear, this isn’t an overnight process—it may even be a lifetime’s work. But I’m enjoying the process of slowing down my internal response to perceived criticism, of finding the gap, of relaxing into the harder yet infinitely more rewarding conversations available to me when I stay open.

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a “shields up” position? Have you worked to experience (professional, respectful!) criticism with less defensiveness? How is your life affected by maintaining either a defensive or an open mind?

I always look forward to hearing from you!