Responding Maturely to Criticism: A John F. Kennedy Example
Responding to negative criticism with lower developmental level skills can lead to an escalation of conflicts, violence, and the loss of valued friends. Among the benefits of utilizing higher developmental level skills are increases in how much people like and respect us.
To encourage readers of this blog to think about the most helpful ways to respond to criticism, I presented a post titled “Responding to Criticism: Four Levels of Maturity.” A few weeks later, I presented a post describing the fifth level of maturity, which I believe is the most mature level.
In both of those posts, I give examples of people using each of the different levels. In subsequent posts, I provided some additional examples (see here, here, and here). Readers seem to enjoy these, so with that in mind, I offer you a John F. Kennedy example.
John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic Convention
In 1960, the Democratic Convention was held in Los Angeles. In addition to Kennedy, other democratic candidates for president that year were Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Wayne Morse.
On day two of the conference, Johnson and Kennedy had an exchange in front of the entire delegation. Below, is the transcript of part of that exchange, which I obtained from a Youtube video that you can see and hear for yourself at this link, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gefp6OHLns
The actual exchange begins 4 minutes into the Youtube video. There, we see Lyndon Johnson criticizing Kennedy in front of several thousand delegates. Thus, he says:
For six days and nights we had 24-hour sessions, six days and nights I had to deliver a quorum of 51 men on a moment’s notice to keep the Senate in session to get any bill at all. I’m proud to tell you that on those 51 quorum calls Lyndon Johnson answered every one of them, although some men who would be president on a civil rights platform answered none.
On the roll call on that bill there were 45, Lyndon Johnson answered all 45. Admittedly, I didn’t have the problem that some of my people had of opposing Senators Humphrey and Morse in the primaries. But some senator missed 34 of the 45. And I point this out only so those of you who may have been not fully understanding of my entry into the race. That it is my considered judgment that my people had sent me to the Senate to perform the duty of a United States senator for which I was paid $22,500 a year. And my colleagues, including Senator Kennedy and Senator Symington, and 62 other beloved Democrats had selected me as their leader. And I did not think you would reward negligence. I did not think that you would reward me for inattention, nor did I think, as Al Smith put it, that you would penalize me.
Here’s Kennedy’s reply, which begins about six minutes into the Youtube tape:
I’m glad we are not going to put these speeches to a vote, after looking at Massachusetts’s and Texas’s delegates today. Let me just say that I appreciate what Senator Johnson had to say. He made some general reference to perhaps some shortcomings of other presidential candidates, but as he was not specific I assume he was talking about some other candidate and not me.
Kennedy then breaks out in a huge smile because he knows, and everyone present knows that Senator Johnson’s comments had indeed been directed toward criticizing Kennedy’s record. The crowd clearly appreciates Kennedy’s humor, and then, after the laughter subsides, he continues:
I, uh, found it extremely beneficial serving in the Senate with Senator Johnson as leader. I think if I emerge as successful in this convention it would be as a result of watching Senator Johnson proceed around the Senate for the last eight years.
Kennedy, now turns to Lyndon Johnson and says:
I have learned the lesson well, Lyndon, and I hope it will benefit me in the next twenty-four hours.
Kennedy has now turned back to the larger audience.
It is true that Senator Johnson made a wonderful record in answering those quorum calls, and I want to commend him for it. I, uh, was not present on all of those occasions, uh, no one, I was not majority leader. Lyndon knows I never criticized, in fact on every occasion I said that I thought Senator Johnson should not enter the primary. That his proper responsibility was as majority leader and that if he would let Hubert, Wayne and I to settle the matter we could come to a clearcut decision.
So, I come to you today full of admiration for Senator Johnson, full of affection for him, strongly in support of him for majority leader, and in that position we’re all going to work together. Thank you.
Now, after this reply to Johnson’s criticism of him, Kennedy does something else that we don’t actually see in the Youtube video. Kennedy, behind closed doors, informs Johnson that his criticism, in addition to the obvious issues, revealed two important others: First, Johnson wants to some day be president, and, second, he also wants to get several bills passed that were close to his heart, especially the civil rights bills. Kennedy explained that right now he, Johnson, was well known in Texas and the Senate, but the public in other regions around the country knew nothing about him. Kennedy then informed Johnson that he had decided to select him to be his running mate if he succeeds at obtaining the nomination. As vice president, Johnson would get to be known throughout the country. This would put him in a better position to seek the presidency in the future. Moreover, as vice president, he would preside over the Senate, and together with Kennedy as president, he could have a much better chance of getting his favorite bills enacted into law. In this way, Kennedy steered in the direction that he felt Johnson’s criticism suggested.
Okay, so that is how Kennedy responded to Johnson’s negative criticism. I shall now present the outline of all five developmental levels of responding to criticism. If you will, look them over and see what level best matches Kennedy’s response.
Five Levels of Responding to Criticism
1. This level requires displaying one or more of the following:
- Weeps or sobs with tears or pouts
- Physically attacks the criticizer
- Damages property
2. This level requires displaying one or more of the following:
- Insults the criticizer (either with words, hand gestures, the sticking out of a tongue, the rolling of the eyes, or smirks)
- Glares at the criticizer
- Threatens the criticizer
- Punches, kicks, or throws an object without physically hurting someone or damaging anything
- Criticizes the criticizer without first fully addressing the original criticism.
3. This level requires displaying one or both of the following:
- Displays defensiveness without directly insulting the criticizer (raising voice’s volume or pitch)
- Displays a lack of interest either by verbally indicating this, or with nonverbal cues, or complete silence.
4. Level 4 individuals listen to the criticizer in a supportive, warm, friendly style, and then make it clear that they fully understand what was said. Moreover, they put the criticizer at ease by making statements that indicate that the wise learn from criticism. Some time is spent on showing that they are thinking about the criticism. If, after thinking about the criticism the criticism is deemed to be correct, they make a statement frankly indicating, “I can see your ideas have merit and I intend to use them in the future.” If they are not sure if they agree, they make a statement indicating that they are very interested in what was said, plan to think a little more about this over the next few days and then they will be ready to discuss this further. If, after thinking about the criticism, the criticism is deemed to be incorrect, a statement is made designed to disagree without being disagreeable. More specifically, a sense of humor, some listening in a caring way and a few smiles help to traverse rough terrain. As the episode winds down, the criticizer is encouraged to feel comfortable communicating suggestions in the future.
5. In addition to actions consistent with level 4, people responding to criticism in a manner consistent with level 5 seek ways to use, whenever they disagree with the criticism, a technique known as steering in the direction the criticizer would prefer to go. That is, rather than just disagreeing without being disagreeable, the criticized person seeks to find a new choice of action that creatively utilizes some aspect suggested from the criticism. Steering cannot be incorporated into all situations, but it is an additional goal of the most mature individuals.
All right. Now that you have had a chance to look over the descriptions of the 5 levels, which level do you think best matches Kennedy’s response? Moreover, regardless of what level Kennedy’s response matches, what do you think of his response. I encourage you to voice your opinion by writing a comment in the “Leave a Reply” box that appears toward the bottom of this post.
Thanks for visiting today, and I hope to see you back here soon.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.