It’s generally not fun to be at the receiving end of criticism. Also, there’s no doubt that some criticism is mean-spirited, hostile, and not really meant to be helpful. However, often we can learn a lot from constructive criticism. The challenge is to resist becoming defensive, which reduces our chances of actually learning something from the situation.
Some tips for receiving critical feedback in effective ways:
- Respond calmly. Resist the impulse to jump in and begin defending yourself with an angry tone. Instead, take a few deep, slow breaths. Don’t talk over the other person, although this can be extremely difficult. When we feel cornered, which often happens if we perceive the other person to be attacking us, we can go into lashing-out mode. Instead, try to speak with measured and respectful tones, at a relatively slow pace. Try to keep bitterness out of your tone.
- Manage your anxiety. Watch your inner dialogue. What are you telling yourself about what the other person is saying? Are you lambasting yourself for “horrible” behavior? Are you catastrophizing, believing that all is lost concerning the professional or personal relationship? Or can you mentally and emotionally step back just a bit and reassure yourself that the other person probably (more on this below) has the best interests of your relationship (be it personal or professional) at heart?
- Determine whether the criticism is constructive in nature. This sort of helpful criticism generally contains specific and productive suggestions for change, and refrains from making global statements such as “you never” or “you always”. Constructive criticism often comes in a “sandwich” format, meaning that the initial statement consists of a positive comment, followed by the critical note, and concludes with another positive or encouraging sentence.
- Consider the source. Is the other person generally positive? Or are they mostly critical of others and tend to complain and push blame onto other people rather than focusing on possible solutions? If it appears to you that the other person is more of the “pointing-a-finger”, angry, and/or narcissistic type, try not to take their words personally. However, you could still look for a potential grain of truth in what they say. For instance, if they state, “You always make things more difficult than they have to be”, consider if in at least one instance you might have done so. You could respond with, “Yes, I wasn’t adequately prepared for our meeting last week and took more time than usual to explain our project’s status”. Or, if you can’t think of such an example, you could respectfully ask them to provide you with one, so you can understand their criticism more clearly.
- If you’ve decided that the criticism is constructive and that the other person has good intentions, try to lower your guard (again, easier said than done). Try to keep in mind that the feedback is meant to improve the situation and pave the way for better times to come.
- Try not to defend yourself and make excuses. Certainly you’ll want to offer an explanation if you’ve been accused of something you did not do. However, even in this case it helps to hear the other person out first, before asking if you could offer your perspective. People like to feel heard, and your accusing party is no exception.
- Make a plan for addressing the criticism. For example, if you’ve been told that your latest report contained a number of grammatical and numerical errors, state that you will spend more time reviewing your work, and possibly run it by a colleague, if appropriate, before turning it in. You could add that you welcome further feedback.
- Thank the other person for their feedback, especially they’re also being kind. It’s not easy to give constructive criticism, due to the potential of the receiving party feeling hurt, demoralized, or angry. Put yourself in their shoes. Showing appreciation to them can go a long way in contributing to a congenial and cooperative atmosphere, whether further helpful discussion can take place, now and in the future.
- Feedback can be a gift. Most of the time there is something to learn from the situation and to therefore be grateful for. Have you previously received similar feedback? How can you use this information to improve your performance at work, enhance your relationships, grow as a person, or all three?
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. None of us is perfect. None of us is a mistake. When someone points out areas in which you could use some more training, where you could be a bit more diligent or detail-oriented, or more aware of other people’s feelings, this is not an attack on your character as a whole.
Finally, stay confident. You have many strengths, and a thoughtful person would point these out as well. However, even if they don’t, try to remember your strong points and thus counter all-or-nothing thinking about your value as a person.