How to Handle Criticism

Accepting Feedback With Good Grace

How to Handle Criticism - Accepting Feedback With Good Grace

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Look at criticism from another angle.

How do you react to criticism?

For many of us, our first reaction is often one of anger. After all, nobody enjoys being told they haven't done well, and some of us go out of our way to avoid any kind of negative feedback!

When you come to it with an open mind, however, you can use criticism to help you grow and become more effective. No one is perfect, and criticism can contain valuable feedback that can help you to see your weaknesses, and perform better next time.

This article shows you how to tell whether criticism is fair or unfair, before offering tips on handling fair criticism with good grace.

Fair Versus Unfair Criticism

There are important differences in how you should respond to fair and unfair criticism, so you need to be able to tell them apart.

Fair Criticism is given in a respectful, non-threatening way. It includes factual statements, and focuses on actions to be taken, rather than on the person responsible for them. For example, your boss might say to you after a presentation, "Your slides weren't as effective as they could have been. If you'd had less text on them, people would have listened more to you, instead of just trying to read your slides. Some extra pictures would make it more interesting next time, too."

Unfair Criticism may be delivered in a harsh way, using broad unspecific terms or generalizations, and possibly in a public place where there are plenty of other listening ears. However, what really marks out criticism as being unfair is when the criticisms "melt away" when you challenge them rationally. see our article, Dealing with Unfair Criticism, for more on how to handle this.

Handling Criticism

When we're criticized, it's easy to feel defensive. After all, criticism implies that we've done something wrong, or that we're not meeting the performance levels we should.

Well, the good news is that no one is perfect! All of us make mistakes at some point or another.

Think about it: if you've never make a mistake, it probably means that you've never pushed yourself to work outside your comfort zone; you've never taken risks; or that you've never stuck your neck out for anything. That's no way to develop your skills or career!

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Here are some constructive responses to reasonable criticism.

Adjust Your Attitude: Start by looking at criticism as an opportunity to learn and do better. The person offering the feedback is usually keen for you to improve your performance. You can make sure that the conversation starts on the right note by approaching the situation with an open mind, and by having a sense of gratitude that someone's taking the time to help you. Resist the temptation to be defensive!

Disconnect: It's important to realize that fair criticism is about something you've done or said, not about you personally. Try to disconnect your personal feelings from the criticism, so that you can see the truth in what the other person's saying.

Really Listen: Make sure that you actually listen to what is being said. It can be easy to just nod in apparent agreement, while, in reality, you're busy thinking about what you're going to say as soon as the other person has stopped talking. That isn't really listening: you need to listen actively in order to understand just what it is that they're saying.

Don't Respond Immediately: Always take time to formulate your thoughts, and make sure you're calm before you say anything. When we fire back immediately we often say things we regret, and which make us look unprofessional. If you find that you need more than a few seconds to calm down, then say so. Ask for some time to formulate your response, and come back with it later. And if the criticism was received by e-mail, don't press the Reply button straight away!

Paraphrase the Criticism: Repeating what the person just said in your own words is a great way to make sure you've understood them fully. Use a non-aggressive approach here. Remain calm, and rephrase what you think they've said in a unthreatening way. You might say, "So if I'm understanding you correctly, you think that…"

Find the Facts: If the person offering criticism isn't being specific enough, then ask questions. It's important to find out what the real issue is. If your boss says, "I didn't like your last report", then get details. What didn't she like about it?

Admit Mistakes: People who own up to their mistakes are respected and admired. When you freely take responsibility for something that hasn't worked out as you would have wished, you're demonstrating professionalism and maturity. If you're in the wrong, admit it and apologize. Agreeing with your critic puts you both on common ground, and can often foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and open communication.

Learn From the Experience: Fair criticism can help us improve our performance, if we take the time to learn from it. So, spend some time thinking about what happened, and what your critic said. Come up with a plan for how you're going to fix the situation and avoid the same mistake next time.

Be Thankful: After you've gained perspective on the experience, thank the person for taking the time to give you feedback. Many people feel uncomfortable giving criticism, just as many people are uncomfortable receiving it. Explain how it has helped you, and what you've learned from the experience.

Key Points

There's a big difference between fair and unfair criticism, but sometimes the line between the two is hard to see. Fair criticism can help you grow and learn, while unfair criticism can drag you down.

When it comes to handling fair criticism, realize that this is an opportunity. Keep an open mind and, where possible, be willing to own up to any mistakes you've made. Realize that the critic is addressing an action or a situation, not you personally. Make an effort to listen actively and understand what they're saying, and then plan how you'll improve things and move on.

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Comments (7)
  • Over a month ago Dianna wrote
    Hi John,
    It's fantastic you are taking the feedback you received and using it as a launching pad to improve - you have a great opportunity here!

    What I suggest you try is to take the last 30 minutes of your shift to group your thoughts and think about what happened on your shift. Develop a framework that outlines the key deliverables and expectations and then provide a status update for each of these. Think about what it is the 'managers need to hear'. What are the key pieces of information they need to know to manage the business? Production numbers? Downtime? Troubleshooting incidents? Maintenance issues? Once you have your framework you can then fill in the blanks as the night evolves and then formulate your thoughts to hit the highlights when you prepare your verbal report.

    If you go into the meeting thinking you can just "wing it" you risk this confused perception. With some deliberate thought I'm sure you can present the professional image you want to portray. We have an article on milestone reporting that talks about this basic concepts related to projects and the concept is essentially the same.

    Do you think this approach would work and help you be more organized in your delivery?

  • Over a month ago John_Paulk wrote
    Glad to find this article. I got some such feedback yesterday. I needed to hear it but hard to swallow.

    I need some help on how to resolve it. I was told the perception of me was that I appeared confused when I was reporting in some shift turnover meetings at the end of my 12 hour night shift. I'm a Chemical Engineer in a chemicals plant. I was told that if I can improve my perception then I might very well be offered a permanent position...I'm under an annual contract now.

    Any advice (articles, training) on Mindtools on how to focus better on my shift (I've got three weeks of such starting next week and starting in April, I'll be working on some big projects with a chance to show my value). My boss told me I should prepare notes for my verbal report, be brief, and anticipate only what the managers need to hear. And also, to turn it over to the next engineer and let it go and pick up at the beginning of my next shift. A shift must end.

    Any feedback, advice, recommended reading / training would be very much appreciated.


  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Some people may view it as simply being semantics ... different words for the same thing. However, the emotional reactions people get with the word 'criticism' and 'feedback' are very different. One evokes defensiveness while the other receptivity to what is being said.

    I'm all for using as much 'positive' type language as possible to encourage, support and inspire people!

    Here's to having an amazing positive day!
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