There is another option. You can agree to a partial truth, agree to a probability, and/or agree in principle, followed in each case by probing for more information.
For example, if someone says you're not serious enough, you could:
Agree to a Partial Truth -- "It's true I'm not as serious as some people we know," followed by, "In what way has that been a problem?" Or "Is there something in particular you suggest I change?"It may take a round or two or probing for details and/or moving to a solution before the other person stops making judgmental ("You're not..., you should... you shouldn't") or global statements (what does serious mean to that person in reference to you?). But if you remain non-defensive and show you're open enough to look at yourself honestly, eventually you'll have specific, behavioral feedback. You may or may not choose to act on it, but at least you'll know exactly what the other person is perceiving.
Agree to a Probability -- "Maybe I haven't been serious enough," followed by, "Tell me more" or "What would you like to see me do differently?"
Agree to a Principle -- "I agree it's important to be serious sometimes," followed by, "What have I done or said that's out of balance?" or "Let's talk about how my being more serious would be helpful here."
Then you can explain yourself, if necessary, and show your appreciation, if appropriate. Benefits of responding this way:
- Even when the other person is being manipulative and/or passive-aggressive, this will lead to a more direct interchange.
- Your questions will require the other person be more specific, less judgmental.
- You'll buy some time and lower your defensiveness as you think through which way to respond: Is there some truth to it? Might there be some truth to it? Can I at least agree to an implied principle?
- You may learn something about yourself you need to know.
- The other person will gain respect for you instead of thinking, "Forget it! You can't tell that person anything!"
*Dr. Manuel Smith calls this technique Fogging (see When I Say No I Feel Guilty and When I Say No I Feel Guilty, Vol. II, for Managers and Executives).