Your Career Journey: Dealing with conflict and criticism


Conflict and criticism is part and parcel of being employed. You may receive criticism from your boss, or experience conflict with a team member.

dealing with conflict and criticism

In this article, we have asked a South African psychologist, Tanya van de Water, to explain to us how to deal with conflict and criticism.

So, here we hand over to Tanya…

Work may be defined as the process of being paid to act towards a goal with a group of people with different priorities. It is therefore the perfect breeding ground for conflict and criticism. In fact, conflict and criticism should be expected. But how do you deal with it?

Consider criticism a contribution to your character

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

Norman Vincent Peale

Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham designed a model known as Johari’s window. It is a conceptualization tool that describes the relationship with self. Without criticism (feedback from people around you), you will never gain insight into your blind spots. In short, to become a more rounded, successful, mature, functional human being we need to constantly grow in self-knowledge. Therefore, critique gives you information about yourself you may not have gained in any other way.

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

Winston Churchill

Beware of emotional reactions

Although criticism can be very helpful, it does not always come in nice packaging. For optimum reception of criticism, we should sandwich constructive criticism between two slices of praise. But either way, in receiving criticism or facing conflict, you are faced with a decision:

  • Act like a rhino: Bulldoze your way to protect yourself
  • Or, act like a porcupine: Withdraw and show your displeasure in passive ways
  • Lastly, act rationally: Respond once you are in control of your emotions

The amygdala hijack

This decision can be very challenging to make when your emotions are firing on all cylinders. This is known as an amygdala hijack. It is the process where the emotion center of the brain (amygdala) takes over and reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex (part of the brain where rational thinking, problem-solving, and planning takes place). With your emotions ruling, it is therefore difficult to act in a professional, wise, mature manner.

Pros and cons of the rhino and porcupine position

The rhino

The rhino storms in and forces their way on others. This can be a physically or emotionally aggressive strategy hurting the receiver(s) and also leaves the rhino with high levels of shame and regret for their emotional behaviour. Rhino behaviour is often unprofessional.

The porcupine

On the other hand, the porcupine withdraws into self-defense and sends out quills of passive aggressive tone, non-verbal behavior, etc. While the porcupine is prone to a sense of self-righteousness (“at least I am not screaming at/hurting anybody”), they fail to see the harm done to themselves and others in the withdrawal process. Porcupine behavior is unprofessional because it does not resolve the problem. Read more on this on Tanya’s website here.

Allow your pre-frontal cortex time to catch up

There is much wisdom in the old adage “count to 10.” This simple strategy allows the brain time to realign thus getting information past the emotion centre and to the thinking part of the brain.

Have a statement ready

You may also find it beneficial to have a statement ready where you acknowledge the critic without responding to the content of their criticism e.g. “Thank you for your feedback. I will respond soon,” or “I hear you. Please give me a few minutes.”

Practice breathing techniques

In this “catch up” time, practice some breathing: instead of taking quick shallow (emotional) breaths, concentrate on blowing breath out like you would blow bubbles with a bubble wand. This slower, deeper breathing further stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system and deactivates the fight or flight response so present during intense emotions.

Use visualization techniques

Some people find it helpful to visualize a calm scene or make positive statements about self. Whatever strategy you choose, beware of the temptation to ignore the conflict. It is above all important that you return to the sender to resolve the source of the conflict.

Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.


Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters

When you receive criticism, you do not have to accept everything the person says. You do need to consider it though. It may be helpful to ask yourself a few questions. What about this is:

  • True?
  • Difficult?
  • Hurtful?
  • Helpful?

Now that you have considered the criticism, you are in a more powerful (and rational) position to respond. Try this formula the next time you give a colleague feedback:

  • I observe… Make sure you refer to factual events that are visible to the fly on the wall.
  • I think… Make sure you provide your opinion here. The receiver must listen, but doesn’t have to agree.
  • I suggest… This is an opportunity to provide the critic with solutions to the problem
  • What do you think… To reduce the conflict, this question promotes dialogue towards a common goal.

For other communication techniques see this article and this one by Tanya.

My father used to say, don’t raise your voice – improve your argument.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu


In conclusion, it is clear that conflict and criticism is a critical part of our development. These tips are not only applicable to a work environment, but also to our relationships outside of work.

If you would like to learn more about dealing with conflict and criticism, you can contact Tanya here.

About Tanya

Tanya van de Water is a clinical psychologist in Henley on Klip. She provides individual, couple, and group therapy to tweens, teens and adults. She is passionate about making psychology more accessible to everyday people who need to apply it to everyday life.