Handle Criticism

Criticism can (and often does) hurt. But no matter what you do in life, you expose yourself to the possibility of being judged unfavorably. Even if you try to remain in the background, avoiding all confrontation, you still must make decisions––minor ones, maybe, like where you eat and what you wear. And, rest assured, not everyone will agree with your choices. So, since you are going to receive criticism no matter what, let's take a closer look at how you can best handle (and even benefit from) it!

The next time you are criticized, consider the following points:

  • Criticism is often nothing more than a reflection of personal preference. Again, regardless of what you do, somebody won't like it. For instance, to get feedback from the audience at my seminars, I often hand out lecturer evaluation forms. Without fail, atleast three or four people wrote that they wish there had been more time for audience participation during my presentation; at the very same program, atleast two or three others write that they wish there had been less time spent on group involvement. Accept that people have diverse backgrounds, preferences and interests. You won't please everyone, so don't even try.
  • Don't take it personally. Sure, this is easier said than done. However, the critic generally isn't trying to prove that you have no value as a person. Rather, they're revealing their dislike of your idea or your performance. Let them have their opinions. In the end, you decide whether to let another person's remarks bother you.
  • Strive to learn from their words. Find some truth in their statements—even if only a shred. There is usually some accuracy in critical comments. The critic may not be tactful, and the remarks may be greatly exaggerated, but there is often helpful information you can glean. It's your job to seek out this kernel of truth and benefit from it! For example, let's say your spouse accuses you of “never” being on time. While this statement is not entirely accurate, you should still consider in what ways, if any, you might improve your punctuality.
  • Don't critique the critic. It's an equally bad idea to adopt a “consider the source” attitude. Even if someone is generally untrustworthy or, for whatever reason, you don't get along with him or her, it doesn't mean that his or her comments will always be completely without merit.
  • Don't be defensive. Resist the temptation to argue with the critic. While it's only natural to try to prove that you are “right” and that the other person is “wrong,” this generally gets you nowhere. (Of course, there will be some instances where it's important to establish that you won't tolerate abusive remarks and that you deserve to be treated with respect. Use your best judgment.)
  • Accept that many people focus only on negatives. The critic rarely gives a full, accurate assessment. He or she tends to report only the negatives, even if there are plenty of positives to mention as well. Recognize that some people simply think it's unnecessary to tell you what you've done right. Instead, they focus only on “helping” you—which, to them, means “correcting” you.
  • Realize that vicious, harsh comments come from those people who are unhappy with themselves. Here again, there might be a shred of truth or something you can learn from the criticism. But I've found that mean, angry, insulting remarks spring from unhappy, insecure people. They have to vent their anger and frustration on someone and you've been chosen as today's target! Don't let these people bring you down. (NOTE: If you repeatedly receive harsh words from others, it's not a coincidence. You are attracting criticism based on your beliefs and your level of self‑esteem. Take responsibility and look inward at what you can change to achieve more harmonious relationships with those around you.)
  • Remember: Not everyone will like you, your goals or your actions. But don't let the fear of criticism stop you from doing what you want. Accept criticism as part of life, and learn from it where possible. And, most importantly, stay true to your own values and convictions. If others don't approve, so what!

Here are seven things you can do next time you find yourself under the microscope of someone's scrutiny:

  • Pray. Do this first and you'll find it easier to keep your mouth closed and your heart open.
  • Focus on facts. How? Specify their criticism through repetition. Try and understand the issue from their point of view by getting them to be as precise as possible in their complaint.
  • Maintain your composure. Model the behavior you want from them.
  • Listen to it, think through it, learn from it, and admit where you are wrong. Even in the harshest criticism, there is usually a strand of truth. Apologizing for the 5% that is your error will go a long way in defusing the other 95%.
  • Turn your critics into coaches. Turn your liabilities into assets by asking for their help and evaluation, but only in their areas of strength and expertise.
  • Expect it, classify it, and act on it. When criticism comes, ask yourself, "Is this distracting me from my main purpose, or will it help me accomplish it better?"
  • Bring final closure to the issue. Eventually, meet with your critic to close the door on the issue, not the relationship. Now you can both move on with little baggage. Let them linger and they can be like blisters -- you never know they're there till you try and get something done!

Destructive Criticism Involves:

  • A global, all encompassing accusation that uses words such as never, always, should and ought ("You never listen." "You always do this to me." "You should be more considerate." "You ought to know better.");
  • An attempt to make the other person feel guilty ("You know how much I count on you." "I'm very disappointed in you." "This shows you don't really care.");
  • An uncontrolled outburst of anger, impatience or shouting to intimidate the other person ("Look at what you've done!" "This is the last straw!");
  • The use of old resentments as ammunition ("This is just like the time you . . ." "You remind me of my ‘ex'." "You're just like your mother.");
  • The use of emotional blackmail, acting like a martyr ("It's really hard on me, but I feel it's my duty to point this out to you." "Telling you this hurts me more than it hurts you." "I'm wasting my breath talking to you.");
  • Subtle and manipulative innuendoes to coerce the other person ("If you loved me, you'd . . ." "After all I've done for you, this is the thanks I get?" "Do what you want, but don't come crying to me."); 
  • A lengthy monologue in which one side dominates ("Let me finish. I've got more to get off my chest." "I don't want to hear your excuses." "You'll just have to wait.").

Constructive Criticism Tends to Be:

  • Warm and supportive ("I liked your report, and we can talk about additional suggestions over lunch." "Right now I'm not concerned with what happened but what we can do to make things right again.");
  • Short and specific ("I like the overall approach and have some questions about this one item." "Explain to me more about what you mean here.");
  • Personal, using "I" statements to express your point of view ("I have trouble when someone  . . . , so I'd prefer if you . . ." "Instead of telling me  . . . , I'd be more open if you asked me this way  . . . ");
  • Patient, without expecting the other person to comply instantly or change overnight ("I know it's going to take us time." "It's normal to have some ups and downs.");
  • Open to the other person's feelings ("I can appreciate how angry you must feel." "I can see how upset you are; I'd be hurt, too.");
  • An invitation to hear the other person's point of view ("What could we have done differently?" "What would work for you?");
  • Careful to limit criticism to specific actions and not to person's overall self worth ("I still think you're terrific . . . and what needs work is . . ." "I value you greatly as a partner, and that includes our ability to discuss these things."); and
  • Committed to cooperation and a positive outcome ("Since we both want  . . . , we'll need to watch out for . . ." "How can we work better together?" "If we remember to  . . . , we'll do fine.".)

Receptive Listening Skills

In addition to developing the use of constructive criticism in our interpersonal relationships, we need to work at developing receptive listening skills. This requires setting aside our own thoughts and feelings long enough to learn what the other person means, to actually feel what another feels. We need to listen beyond words to the sender's best intentions. Receptive listening is one of the most powerful means with which to communicate warmth and stimulate creativity. There are three components to receptive listening: developing empathy; shifting from "I'm right" to "Point of view"; and staying calm.

Developing Empathy

With regard to hearing criticism, empathy means listening to other persons in such a way that you can understand the feelings beneath the words. It means striving to see their frame of reference, including how they perceive you and your actions. When you are giving criticism, empathy means being open to appreciating the other person's reasons and point of view. Instead of trying to convince people that they should feel different, empathy helps you seek to understand why they feel the way they do.

Shifting from "I'm right" to "Point of view"

If you have a cherished belief that someone criticizes, you may react as if you, yourself, are being attacked. Even if you're being criticized for a self-destructive habit, it may feel as if your identity is under attack. The more you react to criticism as an attack on your emotional survival, the more you will be blinded to the potential merits of the other person's point of view. When we perceive criticism as an accusation or put-down, we often defend against it as if our lives were at stake.

If we give up insisting how right we are and try to listen receptively, we allow the other person to be right as well. "What you resist persists"—the more you insist how wrong the other person is, the more he will persist in trying to prove how right he is. Focusing on "point of view" means learning that at any given moment each of us is right from his or her own perspective. When it comes to feelings, no one is wrong. When we are listening receptively, our intention is that the other person feels more relaxed, appreciated, and understood.

Staying Calm

Most people feel tense and defensive under criticism. As soon as you notice your temperature rising and muscles tightening, the best thing to do is to stop and regain your sense of personal safety. Inhale and exhale deeply a few times; sit quietly for a few moments. When you take a few moments to regain your composure, the criticism almost always seems more benign.

Often we criticize in others the things we can't accept in ourselves. In essence we are saying, "How can I possibly tolerate in you what I criticize myself for all the time?"

If you find yourself getting defensive when a loved one or an associate is criticizing you, ask for a 20 minute time-out. Your purpose is not to avoid a necessary discussion, but rather to take some time to reflect and regain your composure. You might want to say, "I'm not at my best right now. Let me take a few minutes for myself so that I can hear you better." In some cases you may want to think about the criticism overnight or until your next meeting. You have the right to say, "Thanks for your suggestions. Let me give them some thought, and I'll tell you what I need to put into action." Since criticism often challenges some of our most cherished beliefs about ourselves, it is natural that you will need time to digest and integrate the other person's suggestions or counsel.

Learning to Favor the Positive

One of the best ways to deal with a "critical spirit" is to remember that, whether at work or at home, criticism is always more effective when coupled with praise and support. It's far more valuable to catch your spouse, children, co-workers, and especially yourself doing something right than to catch them doing something wrong.

Consider the following guidelines:

  • Don't forget to acknowledge yourself and others for being receptive to criticism. Since criticism is difficult for most of us, learning to take criticism requires changing a number of old habits. Every time you are less defensive or reactive when you are criticized, give yourself a pat on the back. Acknowledge your spouse, children, or co-workers when they respond well to criticism. None of us changes overnight, yet we feel encouraged when someone notices our signs of progress.
  • When it comes to criticism, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Seek out feedback and further clarification before miscommunication turns into a crisis. Instead of relying on vague assumptions with your love partner, children or co-workers, or guessing at what they may need, ask for clarification and suggestions.
  • You have tremendous influence over the type of criticism you receive. When you become supportive and skillful at criticizing constructively, your loved ones and co-workers are sure to notice. Nothing begets appreciation like appreciation. Even when you are under fire, common courtesy can often turn the situation around. Rather than responding angrily, genuine friendliness, concern and compassion can be disarming. How you treat others will also help them see how you want to be treated. If your criticism of them is brief, specific and loving, they will gradually (not overnight) learn to return the favor.
  • Learning to give constructive criticism must also paradoxically include being less critical. There is an art to learning to accept yourself and others exactly the way they are without expecting miraculous changes. The less rejecting and intolerant you are, the better others can hear and use your criticism. Instead of always scolding and reprimanding others, it's okay to let some things slide and to focus only on those issues that really matter. When loved ones and co-workers know you appreciate them and judge them fairly, they are more likely to value your suggestions.
  • "Five specific acknowledgments a day keeps the critic away." Especially in our intimate relationships, we need to feel loved and appreciated (research findings suggest that, for young children, it takes 100 positive or "constructive" comments to undo one "destructively" critical comment). For those who have fallen into the trap of criticizing too much or taking each other for granted, a good exercise is for each of the parties to list on a piece of paper five specific things you like about the other. Items must be positive and specific. Make an effort to take time each day to find the opportunity to give specific positive and loving feedback, no matter how long you've lived or worked together.
  • Super-critical people may be crying out for love and appreciation. Instead of criticizing them for criticizing you, find out what's really going on with that person, and try empathizing with their feelings. A smile or a kind word is often a potent response or reply.
  • Remember you are bigger than the event or trait for which you are being criticized. A criticism directed at you is a statement about a behavior and not about your entire worth. In spite of what you may have been told, or perceived as a child, you deserve to be loved even when you make mistakes or have difficulties. Seeing criticism as helpful feedback allows you to use it for growth rather than as a devastating exposť of your shortcomings.


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