Whatever is going on, everyone has an opinion about it. Getting married? Everyone knows when you should have kids, what kind of house you should buy, and even how often you should be intimate! Expecting a baby? Everyone knows the best way to care for them at night, the best products to buy, and the right amount of siblings.
And opinions don't stop with major life changes. Home décor, shopping/consuming habits, diet, exercise, and parenting are all fodder for scrutiny. Do you stay at home? Let me give you some reasons why you shouldn't. Are you a working parent? Well, let me tell you how you are harming your child.
Let's face it. Unsolicited advice can be very anger-inducing. There are plenty of websites out there with recommended snippy retorts to common comments. Yet replying on the defensive usually only serves to escalate the situation.
To know how to respond to unwanted comments, two things must first happen. You need to know why the comment upset you, and you need to consider the reasons that the other person made the comment.
1. Why Did the Comment Upset You?
It is not possible to be offended by another person's words. Words have absolutely no meaning, unless we apply meaning to them. And when other people talk, they are only showing us what is going on in their mind. Their words can't possibly have any inherent meaning about us.
So why are words upsetting? It's not the words that are upsetting, but the existing assumptions that the words are “proving” true.
To illustrate this, let me use an example from my own life. I happen to live with my family on a sailboat that is less than 300 square feet. If someone approached me and said, “Kids need a lot of room in a home, to run around. Keeping them in a small space is not healthy,” their words would not mean anything about me.
But if I became upset or offended by their words, it is because I am seeing their words as a threat. If I felt the need to defend myself, it would be because, deep down, I was uncertain that our lifestyle was the best thing for my daughter. If someone's comment leads you to feel defensive, it is because it is feeding your own insecurities.
2. Why Did the Person Say That?
Just as insecurities lead a person to feel defensive, insecurities lead people to say the things that they do. Giving advice is a way of feeling like a person is in control. And criticizing another person's choices is a sign that the criticizer doubts their own choices, and is seeing the other person's decisions as a threat.
Living simply, I have seen many people become defensive after seeing how we live. After being curious with those people, I saw that this was because they were unsure about their lifestyle choices. Often, they liked the idea of paring down, but thought that, simply by making the choices I was making, I was telling them that the “right” thing to do is to live as we do.
When dealing with someone who is criticizing or giving unsolicited advice, be careful not to assume that you know what their reasons are. Instead, be curious with them. Ask questions. Ask them why they are saying what they are. Don't ask leading questions or questions with the intent of defending yourself. Because you never have to defend yourself.
Ask questions with the intention of understanding the other person better. Their comments are not a threat to your choices—they never could be. Be curious, rather than defensive, and you will gain insight into yourself and the other person.
For help in understanding your assumptions and improving communication, consider an individual e-mail, chat or Skype session.
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