How to Receive Complaints and Criticism Gracefully

Proven Way to Handle Negative Feedback From Your Spouse

Say you bought something in a store and it doesn’t work. You call the company’s customer support. Whether you are right or wrong, two scenarios can unfold.

How to deal with criticism

In the first scenario the customer support representative goes into defence mode. Without even knowing the details, they start implying it’s your fault, making you feel like an idiot. In the process, they’re making you angrier by the second. In fact, they are making you feel sorry you bought their product in the first place.

In a different scenario, the staff member listens, letting you know they care. They ask questions. They try to understand. It’s obvious they want to help you, even if signs already show that it’s actually not their fault.

Which Way Do You Like More?

In our relationships, most people will react to a complaint negatively. They start defending themselves. Or they hit back, by pulling another event from the past to “make it even.”

If you were a customer, they would effectively be telling you to go to hell and making you feel like an idiot. Would you buy from that company again? Hell no!

So Why Do We Do the Same Thing When It Comes to Our Loved Ones?

Successful couples know how to respond mindfully to complaints from their partner. They know how to react in a non-threatening way, while inviting insight, cooperation, and understanding.

If your spouse is upset, their ancient brain—the amygdala—is alert. They feel like they are in danger. Maybe they feel taken for granted. Perhaps you said (or didn’t say) something that made them believe you are not treating them fairly. The worst thing you can do is respond negatively.

Here’s What You Can Do Instead


1 – Resist striking back

Remind yourself that criticism is a defensive reaction of your partner to something they perceive as danger. You might not (yet) know what that is, but that doesn’t mean you should strike right back and engage in a fight. Take a deep breath instead.

2 – Buy yourself extra time

After you’ve taken a good deep breath, try this:

  • “What do you mean?”,
  • “I’m sorry to hear that,”
  • “I haven’t thought of things this way.”

But, we are human beings and not robots. So sometimes you will get upset nevertheless. In this case here’s a proven way to preventing from things going south by simply addressing your feelings:

  • “I feel criticized (angry…) right now but I want to understand. I’m listening.”

You will feel better immediately. But, you’ll be able to listen calmly. That’s what you’re aiming for.

3 – Listen

Encourage your spouse to tell you more.
“I understand. Go on.”
Avoid thinking about how you’re going to reply. Just listen.

4 – Avoid interrupting and using buts

You should avoid waiting for your spouse to catch a breath only to interrupt them. Be patient, and be aware that the word but implicitly contradicts everything your spouse has just said.

5 – Dig deeper

Sometimes you’ll need to dig deeper to uncover the real issue. We tend to assume we know what the other person is thinking. In reality, we are just guessing. Say “What do you mean?” or “Can you help me understand?” Use the five magic questions.

6 – Avoid asking why

That is, if you don’t want a B.S. answer. That’s because sometimes even your spouse won’t be able to put a finger on the real cause of their discontent. Your calmness and gentle response will help your spouse uncover the cause of their dissatisfaction more quickly than asking a question that may feel confrontational.

7 – Summarize

Ensure that you understood the issue correctly.

Say “So, if I’ve got this right…”

Then, seek your spouse’s confirmation. This creates a calming and soothing atmosphere. It tells your partner you were actively listening. It tells them you really care.

8 – Seek a resolution

Ask: “What would you like me to do next time?”

If that’s something you can easily agree to, go for it. If not, you’ll just need to go back and forth a couple of times until you do find a solution satisfactory to both. Patience matters.

9 – Thank your spouse for bringing the issue up

It may sound awkward to thank someone who’s complaining about you. But that’s exactly what you should do. It shows your respect. It shows that you are mature.

Most importantly, it’s how you motivate your partner to talk to you next time. You want to have the communication channels open.

 A Valuable Life Skill 

Gracefully receiving negative feedback is useful not just in marriage. For example, try the above the approach mentioned in this post the next time your child is upset and angry at you. Your new approach tells them that you treat them with respect and you care about their feelings. It visibly calms your child down.

That’s because they’ve been listened to when they feel bad. It is only then when they are really ready to listen to YOU. More importantly, unconsciously they are picking up a pattern of resolving conflicts calmly from you. What a great gift for their adult life! And they got it from YOU.

QUESTION: Of the above skills, which do you find the most difficult to employ? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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2 thoughts on “How to Receive Complaints and Criticism Gracefully

  1. If I am truly angry with my husband and he reacts to me as calmly as you suggest to respond and with the words you suggest, I feel patronized and alienated.

    In America, relationship conflict resolution advice comes from a Judeo-Christian, Biblical root (whether people realize this or not). I became a Christian several years ago and I now understand that this truly works. However, growing up and during my first marriage (to a non-Christian, Italian, lol), love was demonstrated via very passionate, loud, and angry exchanges. I am both Italian and Hispanic. Although there are billions of Hispanic and Italian folks who are mature and don’t employ angry outbursts during spousal disagreements, many folks from both these cultures do. I was one of them and I still struggle. Although my mind has been renewed to where I can employ your above advice if my husband is upset with me, I still hate it when he responds that way to me. I have to use my rational brain and not my emotional heart to truly receive the wisdom and respect being offered to me while I’m expressing my discontent. I offer you this perspective because perhaps there are others who feel this way.

    • Hi there! I just mentioned your comment to my wife. We both agree with you. I can still remember occasions when my wife’s calm reaction made me even more angry. Same for my wife. That being said, I’m glad we are able to talk calmly even when we are upset. I truly believe this is the way to go.