How to turn the tables when you feel ganged up upon

One of the hardest things to handle is when you feel ganged up upon. Whether someone criticizes you in their home or office, if an authority figure berates you or even when there are two or more people against one, it’s easy to default into defensiveness without a second thought, often fueling potential conflict. I remember when two girls at work ganged up on me years ago over office politics… I didn’t handle it too well and I recall being so angry after the exchange, not just at them but at myself for not handling it better.


To avoid a roller-coaster effect should this happen to you it’s important to remember the basic principles of assertiveness:


Receiving Criticism in action: Evaluating Negative Assertion

How does imagining your agreement to part or all of what the person said make you feel? Does it leave you feeling awful about yourself or empowered because you have taken control of the conversation? Do you feel optimistic because you now have the opportunity to develop this aspect of your behavior for the better or do you feel overwhelmed? How do you imagine your agreeing with elements of the criticism would have impacted the conversation?


It’s worth bearing in mind that if agreeing with criticism leaves you feeling awful about yourself you may have an underlying self-esteem issue whereby you either feel any weakness translates into having less worth or where you cannot accept weaknesses because it is too threatening to your identity. If you feel awful when you recognize possessing a weakness please read my Tiny Buddha article on self-esteem titled ‘Learning to Love Yourself; 3 Steps to Instantly Boost Your Self-Esteem’.


Receiving Criticism in action: Role Play Using Negative Assertion

Take time to role play how you would have worded your agreement to the person who delivered the criticism, what would you have said and how would you have said it? Think carefully about what body language you would have used, the volume of your voice, your tone and inflection as well as how you would word things in a diplomatic way.


Receiving Criticism in action: Practicing Negative Assertion

Take your example of a time when someone criticized you and explore if there was anything you agreed with, even if it was just agreeing with the fact you could have spoken softer in the moment.


Although it’s often hard to recognize the part we have had to play in high conflict situations or in the areas we are criticized in, the truth is often not so black or white. If you are being criticized about a high conflict situation take the time to reflect as there is usually at least some way we have contributed to the conflict, whether it be in our tone of voice, the things we said or our actions.


If the criticism does not concern a high conflict situation it is still just as important to be reflective, trying to see things from the others perspective but taking care not to accept it without careful consideration (after all it may be malicious criticism). Try to be as honest as you can when thinking about whether the criticism you received in the example you chose last week was valid in any way and write down the elements of the criticism you agreed with, if any.


The criticism quandary; How to handle criticism and emerge bigger and better for it Part Three

Picture courtesy of Shutterstock

Picture courtesy of Shutterstock


Last week we looked at asking questions to those that criticize us (negative inquiry). This week we explore how to agree with valid criticism, a technique called negative assertion.


The following steps are only relevant to situations where you believe the criticism not to be malicious put downs. Remember valid criticism can still be delivered in an accusatory way and that it is the content of what has been said – not the delivery – you need to focus on.


Be Honest with Yourself; Negative Assertion


Why your friends can be a lifeline when you receive criticism

Whenever I receive criticism it always helps – once I’ve digested things mind you – to talk it through with a friend. It’s important when considering which friend to talk it through with that you choose carefully. Someone too blunt and it can make your ego even more sensitive whilst a cheerleader friend will not necessarily tell you the complete truth and might sugar coat things.


This is why I always choose one of my good friends who isn’t afraid to tell me the truth but does so in a very sensitive and diplomatic way. She knows me well enough to know that I will carefully consider what she says, neither dismissing it out of hand nor taking it on board as true automatically.


I also always wait to share my feelings with her until I have processed the criticism fully so that I am not overly sensitive or angry about what has been said (which could easily slant the conversation). Sharing your feelings in this way is brave but when discussed with a trusted friend much insight into the validity of the criticism can be gained, increasing your self-awareness and allowing you the opportunity to practice receiving criticism gracefully. When sharing your feelings it also allows you the opportunity to feel loved and accepted no matter whether the criticism is true or false. This love and acceptance shown by friends despite our weaknesses gives us a deep sense of connection, allowing us to better acknowledge and accept our weaknesses for ourselves – which is the first step towards being able to effectively work on them.


How to avoid criticism damaging your self-esteem

For me working upon my self-esteem has been one of the most difficult and yet rewarding endeavors I have ever undertaken in therapy. One of the biggest lessons I learnt was that my character and my character alone was how I should measure how to view myself. Once I realized this everything else fell into place.


I finally understood that criticism, if founded, means I have done something wrong not that I am something wrong. Once I reached this understanding the impact upon my life was profound. I used criticism as a trigger to put things right if I had wronged anyone and to correct my behavior in future; rather than berating myself for messing up, I celebrated it as an opportunity to grow.


Should we really pick and choose our battles?

I recently had a situation at work whereby I needed to draw on all of my assertiveness training and assert myself to the most senior people in the company. Although I stood my ground it was incredibly stressful whilst I was working in what I considered to be a hostile environment. I remember one conversation when I chose to bite my tongue to the most senior person in the company, despite having very real grounds for asserting myself and disputing what he was saying.


The conversation was related but not about the subject matter which I initially asserted myself on so, to minimize hostility in my work life I decided to remain quiet. I chose not to dispute what he was saying. Although I’ve always held the view that it is important to stand up for yourself both diplomatically and assertively, it is sometimes wise to pick and choose your battles.


Receiving criticism in action: Evaluating role play

When role playing your responses to put downs, did you feel more in control of the direction of the conversation?  How did the role play make you feel? How did it help you? Thinking about the role play in this way will enable you to hone in your skills even more.


Receiving Criticism in action: Role play with a friend how you would respond to put downs

This is your opportunity to practice all the amazing things you would have said if you had thought of them in the moment (don’t worry very few of us do have an immediate reply to put downs).


Remember the key is to stand up for yourself by being assertive – this is the most effective way of putting them in their place and avoids unnecessary conflict or an unhealthy competition between one another’s put downs, which only serves to encourage and escalate the unwanted behavior.


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