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Tips for Handling Criticism

It’s easy to criticize. And, thanks to the siloed sanctuary of the Internet, it’s never been more convenient to tell people in the trenches what you think of them and how they ought to be doing their jobs. In the burgeoning culture of cyber criticism, it’s important not to lose sight of the actual value of constructive criticism.

When dispensed thoughtfully with a purpose, criticism is a useful communication and management tool. It serves as a profound act of compassion. Few people appreciate the gifts criticism hold better than parents, teachers and other adults entrusted with responsibility of shaping young lives. Consider for a moment what you would be today without it.

Holding up a mirror to another person or having one held up to ourselves offers a chance for self-reflection and learning. Unfortunately, criticism is often regarded as synonymous with disapproval and rejection. The kind that offers no practical ideas or solutions, or is downright nasty, reinforces our negative notions of criticism.

This is the kind we all hate to hear. It just points out faults and directly attacks their owner. It aims to show that the person or object has no worth or validity. No practical advice or consideration is offered. No regard for the other person’s feelings is given. Sometimes, it’s simply an expression of the critic’s own insecurity, and the need to put others down to boost their own egos.

Constructive critical feedback, on the other hand, helps us to correct our mistakes and work on our weaknesses. Still, even when it is constructive, criticism can be difficult to take. But it’s not easy to give either. In both situations, it takes some skill and effort to make sure the exchange is beneficial. Here are some tips for handling criticism.

To Accept Constructive Criticism


Literally. Push your inner pause button and take a deep breath. This means resisting your first instinct which is to react. But taking a second allows your brain to assess and process the situation. This gives you a chance to stop any defensive body language or avoid making a remark you might later regret. Take the time to compose yourself. It can be challenging to receive criticism, especially from someone you do no respect or dislike. However, it’s best to refrain from reacting personally to the manager, co-worker, peer or whoever the person may be delivering the feedback. Try to remember that useful information can be learned even when its delivered by from a flawed source. Keep perspective.

Listen to Understand

Give the person sharing feedback with you a chance to speak without interruption. This is important. Listen closely. Let the person giving you feedback finish his/her her thoughts. Once he/she has finished, repeat back your understanding of what you heard. Ask for clarification, but avoid questioning the person’s assessment at this stage. Your objective is to not just hear, but to fully understand what is being said to you. Try to remember that the person may be nervous and having difficulty finding the most accurate words.

Express Gratitude

That’s right. This may be the hardest part. But by saying, “thank you” acknowledges the effort the person made to evaluate you and share their thoughts with you. It also reinforces the cordiality in the relationship, which goes a long way toward helping both of you handle the criticism the right way. Remember, it is because you and your work hold value that you are receiving feedback. Saying “thank you” does not mean you agree with their evaluation. Ask yourself what benefits might you derive from the criticism? What skills, work product, and relationships do you need to help you meet the expectations that your boss, co-workers and others have of you?

Process and Ask Questions

As you deconstruct the feedback, you will probably want to gain more clarity at this point and share your perspective. Avoid engaging in a debate; instead, ask questions to get to the root of the actual issues being raised and workable solutions for addressing them. Seek specific examples to help you understand the issue. Is your mistake or misstep an isolated incident or a pattern? Seek specific solutions. Ask for ideas of how you might handle a situation or project differently.

Look Ahead

Once you have agreed on a course of action for moving forward, thank the person again. At this point, you may also want to request a follow-up meeting. This will give you a chance to further process the feedback, get advice from other sources and formulate more ideas and solutions.

To Give Constructive Criticism

Understand the Reason

It is unfair to criticize just for the sake of criticizing. Personal whims and pet-peeves are not valid reasons for criticism. Shallow information regarding a subject or a biased approach to how certain work should be performed are usually detrimental to constructive criticism. But knowledge in the field of work, your expertise and authority certainly give you the right to make evaluations. Just make sure you understand the reason for the criticism yourself. You want to make sure you’re providing the other person with the feedback they need to correct their mistake or improve in some area.

Criticize the Behavior

It’s wrong to engage in personal attacks. Avoid blaming the person for other things. If the behavior or area of concern is part of a pattern, then that should be addressed. Otherwise, dredging up past issues is a telltale sign you’re on a harmful track. Focus on the behavior at hand. Invite discussion. Keep the conversation open to allow a two-way dialogue. Be prepared to answer questions and clarify your points. Remember, the purpose is to build understanding.

Be Available

Be prepared to lend support. Your right to criticize implies that you are responsible enough to offer advice, ideas and solutions. Learn what may be needed from you to help the other person adjust or improve. Take an honest look at your commitment to giving the person the opportunity to correct their behavior once they have the information they need. Consider the times when you most benefited from critical feedback. Constructive criticism is most effective when given in the context of relationships where respect is also given.

Whenever in doubt, the Golden Rule is a great guidepost!

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