One of the most difficult things for most of us, particularly at work, is to receive and respond to criticism. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that help me take criticism in ways that are mostly productive.
First, Spoiler Alert time: receiving criticism is not any fun. Nothing I say here is likely to change that for you. Nothing I’ve learned has changed that for me. Nobody I know enjoys being criticized.
But, I remember reading something in grad school that I thought was pretty profound. It was in a SF novel, and it went something like:
Remember that criticism is an expression of belief in your ability to do the job. If the person didn’t believe you were capable of changing and doing better, they wouldn’t waste their breath.
Now, is that true all the time? Of course not. Sometimes someone criticizes us just because they’re angry and need to vent. Or, sometimes someone criticizes us because they’re critical by nature, or just an asshole.
But, the fact of the matter is that I can improve my response by taking the perspective that it’s an expression of belief in my abilities—regardless of whether or not it’s true! If I take that perspective, I’m more likely to be able to listen for the things in the criticism that are useful, and make changes in my life or behavior based on them.
For example, when I started writing this blog, I submitted several drafts to different people for feedback to see if I was on target. One of the people I submitted drafts to really didn’t like one of them. She thought it was preachy, and that it made claims that I couldn’t justify, and didn’t like the general tone of the language.
Did I like getting that feedback? No. Of course not! Even given that I was explicitly looking for honest feedback and not just a hug, I didn’t like it when she told me how that piece landed for her.
After letting myself be upset for a bit, I started to look for what I could use out of her comments. While I didn’t agree with all of them, there were some places where I had to admit that she had a point. By making some revisions in the direction of some of her comments, I was able to improve the piece—which was, in fact, the whole point of asking for feedback.
There was another time when my company was working with some outside contractors to design our new product, and my boss called me into a 1:1 meeting with him to discuss some comments I had made about the design. I had been frustrated with the direction that things were going, and had said so in pretty blunt and critical terms.
My boss, shall we say, was not amused by the tone I had used, and told me in no uncertain terms that I had overstepped the bounds of both appropriate behavior and of my area of expertise.
Now, at this point he had been my manager for probably 5-6 years, and I knew, for certain, that we had a relationship of mutual respect and that he valued having me on his team. Even so, did I enjoy hearing those comments? No! I felt uncomfortable that I had behaved in a way that required such direct criticism from him, and there was also a part of me that was scared about the impact on our future relationship.
But, the fact that we had an established relationship meant that I believed that he had my best interest at heart. And, I could see that his point about my actions was correct. So, I apologized, and took steps to behave differently in the future.
Tasha Eurich, in her book Insight, describes the ideal person to give feedback as a “loving critic”. In both of the cases above, I knew that the person’s only agenda in delivering the feedback was to help me get better. While knowing that didn’t make the feedback feel any better, it did help me focus on how I could grow as a result.
Even when the person isn’t a loving critic, though, it’s possible that there’s still a grain of truth in what they say. It still doesn’t feel good, but taking the perspective of looking for it can help.
For example, my PhD advisor was famous for many things, one of which was for being … not the nicest person on the planet. His dissertation review process was that students would write one chapter at a time and submit them for feedback. One time, I received a chapter draft back from him with “This sucks!” written at the top, and no other commentary.
Again, did I enjoy reading that comment? No! Did I find it particularly helpful in the moment? No. But, it did at least help me see a direction not to go for my further writing.
All of the above suggests a process for how to deal with receiving criticism. That process looks something like this:
First, feel the feelings. No process or strategy I’m aware of will ever make receiving criticism feel good. Sometimes, the feelings will be guilt or regret. Sometimes, the feelings will be shame. Sometimes, our feelings will be hurt, or we’ll feel misunderstood. Sometimes, we’ll be scared about the future implications of the criticism, particularly if it comes from someone close to us, or someone whose opinion we value, or with whom we have an important relationship. All of those are normal and natural, and it’s okay to feel them.
Next, one of the things that I’ve found crucially important is to differentiate myself from the thing being criticized. If we’re receiving criticism that isn’t toxic, the thing that’s being criticized is something that we’ve done, not our selves. I am not my writing. I am not my comments in work discussion boards. I know at this point that human beings inevitably make mistakes. Because of that, I know that just writing something that wasn’t so good or making an inappropriately harsh comment on a discussion board doesn’t make me a bad person. It just means I made a mistake, which everyone does.
It’s also important to acknowledge and address the fear(s) that we’re having. How to do that in detail is a topic that I’ll address in more detail later, but one thing that can really help is to remind yourself that most of the fears you’ve had in the past have not actually come to pass.
Finally, look for the kernel of truth. In Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Richard Carlson says “Look for the grain of truth in other people’s opinions.” I was fortunate enough to have found that book long ago, and having internalized the idea made it easier to move on from the criticism and into productive action.
Again, nothing in here is going to make it fun or enjoyable to receive criticism. But, it doesn’t have to be that big of a deal. Taken with the right mindset, it can even help us grow.