Interpersonal dynamics can be difficult. We bring our whole self to interactions. That one time you had a fight with your parents, that other time your childhood friend said something hurtful, the time your boyfriend ignored you, or even the time your best friend made fun of you all make up that self. Our feelings can show up too: shame, guilt, sadness, abandonment, and rejection. It is all so messy. Our past interactions shape how we interact with people in the present. We all walk around with raw hurts and healed scars.
Interactions often involve negative feedback. When someone accuses us of something it can be heartbreaking. It can be anger provoking. It is upsetting. Most of us actually want others to like us, to see us for our intentions, to give us the benefit of the doubt. We ask ourselves: “How could they think that of me? Why do they not see how I see it? How dare they think this? What have I done to cause this? Is it me? Is it them?” We assume that if we explain they will change their minds and not have the original complaint. Often these responses leave us feeling confused and upset.
What are the right questions and responses when someone gives us negative feedback?
It depends on two factors. The relationship you have with the person and the way they state the problem.
First, consider the type of relationship you have with the person. If it is a stranger it may not be worth engaging. Moving on or ignoring seems smart. This is especially true in the case of online interactions. Is this interaction worth your energy or is your energy better put somewhere else? Stating “thanks for your feedback” is also a good response.
If the relationship is important, then ignoring it may not always be wise. A good response is “I understand what you are saying and I need to think about it”. There is nothing wrong in delaying an answer. When possible, delay. This gives you time to process and decide on a course of action.
It is important to understand the basis of the complaint. Is this person complaining about your character, statements/behaviors, or emotions/thoughts?
If the answer is Character:
An accusation against our character is not healthy communication. Name calling is a common character attack. An example here would be “You are selfish”. Name calling is manipulative and controlling. It does not resolve the problem. It is a false dynamic for both people. The accuser is attacking without sharing their needs. If a character defect like selfishness exists, this kind of accusation does not help the person resolve that defect. It just increases the hurt even more. So, there is no solution.
So don’t engage in this. Put up a boundary and move on. You could respond with a statement like: “This conversation has moved to name calling so, it is no longer a conversation I am willing to engage in”.
If the answer is emotions/thoughts:
No one can tell you what you are thinking or feeling. Other people can guess, assume, or even ask about your emotions/thoughts. If you feel angry and someone says you are sad, you can correct them and say “I am actually angry”. No one is inside your head so they don’t know what you are actually thinking. Thus, the only appropriate response here is clarification. Correct them once and move on. As an example, if someone says “You think I am stupid”, a good response would be “I actually don’t think that (assuming you don’t)” and let it go. Sometimes it may be fine to ask “can you tell me what things I do or say that make you think I view you as stupid?” Once the person tells you, then move to the answer below “if the answer is behavior/statement”.
If the accusation is about your behavior or statements:
We all have our own perception of reality. When we love people or desire some sort of relationship with them, we need to honor their perceptions. Their perception sometimes will not match ours. The best question to ask is: “If I was this person, would I see things the way they are seeing them? Even if I disagree with their conclusion/argument, could I validate them?”
Please understand that an apology is nice but often not necessary. Agreement with their point is not necessary. Validation is necessary for healthy relationships. You might respond with “I can hear what you are saying and can see why that might be a problem for you.” This validates their perception without agreeing with it.
So, what does this look like?
This is when things can get a little tricky. Often factors are mixed. Let’s say that someone says to you “You did not ask me how I was doing yesterday. You knew I had been sick and you did not care”.
Let’s say that you did know this person was sick. What would be a good response?
“Wow, I did know you were sick yesterday and I do care. It must have been hurtful to think that I did not care”.
Notice how “you did not care” fits into your feelings. In this situation you are clarifying your feelings (you care), and validating the person. That’s usually enough. If you think you actually made a mistake, it is also okay to apologize.
However, let’s say that you don’t agree that you made a mistake. For instance, you sent a card but felt uncomfortable asking a personal question. In other words you don’t believe you did anything wrong. Here, an apology is not needed, but reassurance may be necessary. Saying “I will work on asking about your well being in the future” is a good way of settling the issue.
I hope you now have some new tools to address conflicts. Keep in mind that conflicts are growth opportunities. Learning a new skill takes time and effort. The more you use these skills the easier they become. So be patient with yourself.
Sabrina Bowen, MS, LCMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and virtually to those located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Sabrina!