How Best to Take Criticism

Defeated young manIf we are to become better, we sometimes have to be told we’re falling short. The ability to take criticism well, and translate it into positive change, is a crucial skill that can be learned.

Often, though, criticism is striking at an area where we are most vulnerable. If we identify strongly with our job, then criticism of our performance can feel like criticism of our self or our worth. It can hurt, and in the midst of that hurt it can be hard to identify positive takeaways from the criticism.

It would be asking too much of any of us that we set aside our emotions and always hear criticism objectively so we can analyze it for ways that we might improve. Our emotions are important, and we need to be allowed to feel them. But we can’t let our emotions keep us from understanding the criticism and finding ways to be better.

When you first receive some criticism, you’re probably going to be experiencing a number of different feelings. You might be hurt that the person criticizing you misunderstood your intent or thought you are doing a bad job. You might experience feelings of shame, guilt, or confusion. This might motivate you to jump to your own defense and try to explain why the criticism is unwarranted. If these feelings are strong, I encourage you to not respond immediately.

First, practice some active listening skills. For the person who is sharing the criticism with you, summarize back to them what you have heard and make sure that you are understanding what they are saying. Once you have confirmed that you are understanding it, thank them for sharing, and let them know that you need some time to think about it but would like to follow up with them later.

Second, give yourself some time. If you are experiencing those feelings of anger, shame, confusion, or frustration, go ahead and experience them. Take a walk, or write them down. I usually find that I need at least one to two days, but we all process our emotions and thoughts differently, so do what is right for you. The key is to not respond immediately, but to give yourself time to experience and think about both your emotions and what your next steps should be.

Third, once you have some distance, think through the criticism that you received. It might be helpful to write this down and itemize it point by point. The person who offered you the criticism had a reason for doing so, and their feelings and perceptions are just as valid as yours. Their conclusions may be inaccurate, but you need to examine each of the things they said to determine that. If they are criticizing the way you perform a task, the first question is whether or not you are performing the task well, or if there is room for improvement. The second question is why the person thought you weren’t doing a good job or that you can improve. You need to gain an understanding of both the objective and subjective aspects of the situation.

Even if you conclude that the criticism was unfounded, you should be able to find ways to improve as you work through the situation. You can use this opportunity to build trust and improve methods of communication, and that can lead to other opportunities in the future. But chances are, there is at least some aspect of the criticism you received that is objectively true. You need to work to take this in, accept it, and think of ways that you can change either your own actions or the system that influenced the situation.

And last, you need to return to the person who criticized you. It is important to talk through your thoughts, and share with them your observations and the improvements you’ve identified. You should work to focus this conversation on yourself, and do not blame the other person for how they brought the criticism to your attention. If you do need to improve the method of sharing criticism, be sure to use “I” statements to share how you feel, instead of value-judgment or declarative statements about the other person.

Because our goal should always be to become better, criticism should be valued and welcomed. And as we practice resting with criticism, and also helping each other point out areas for improvement in sensitive and caring ways, we can build a feedback cycle that helps all of us become better faster and more regularly.

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