How to Deal with Criticism (Part 2 of 3)

No one likes the sting of criticism. Yet, whether we like it or not, criticism is inevitable. Part 2 of a 3-part series.

Lisa B. Marshall,
July 22, 2010
Episode #100

Today, part 2 of How to Handle Criticism. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, go ahead and do that. We’ll wait.

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How to Deal with Criticism

Today we’ll pick up with the remaining quick and dirty tips to deal with criticism professionally and graciously. Recently, author and speaker, Beth Beutler and I started our discussion by suggesting it’s unrealistic to assume you and your ideas are always going to be well received. We suggested that you respond and not react. That is, expect criticism and then practice positive responses. If possible, get clarification and then say thanks.

Vent Appropriately and Prepare

After you’ve done all that, you may still feel angry, frustrated, or upset. Find a healthy way to release those emotions that came from the critical conversation.

If it’s a really important relationship, I don’t want hurt the relationship by saying something stupid. So privately I allow myself to be angry and upset. I often write an email in which I allow myself to say whatever I want, even things that I know aren’t true. The sole objective is to express my angry feelings. And, of course, I NEVER actually send the email. (In fact, I always make sure to put my own name in the “To” field because I never want to accidentally send this email to anyone.)

Write Your Feelings Down

For me, writing a message allows me to organize my thoughts and clarify my feelings. After I have had time to cool off I usually delete the message--and then I’m ready to face the situation more objectively. (Occasionally I’ll keep a note like this just to remind myself of my blurred perspective when I’m angry and hurt). The main point is that you need to plan your conversation and not have an off-the-cuff emotionally heated discussion (especially as you’re walking out the door).

A Word of Caution about Venting

Many people like to vent to supportive friends and co-workers. That can be healthy, within reason. However, if the friends might be negatively influenced by learning of the situation (for example, they work for the same person who criticized you) you may want to pick someone else—someone more objective.

Remember that our negativity toward a person can rub off on friends or fellow co-workers who may not have had any existing problem with that individual. It’s not professional to be the person creating a negative culture and defeating teamwork just so you can feel better.

Give Thought to the Feedback

If you felt deeply about the criticism, it may be because it struck a nerve and concerns something that is very important to you.

The next step may be hardest. You need to listen and reflect. But, in order to really listen, you need to first shut up and be quiet. You need to turn off your defenses. You need to quiet down the voice in your head that wants to respond impulsively. And probably most important for me, I need to remember to keep my face and body neutral--no eye rolling or sighs.

After getting away from the situation, give some thought to the actual statement the person made and honestly ask yourself, "Is there a grain of truth in this?" One way to determine if the criticism is valid is to reflect on the strength of your initial emotional response.

If you felt deeply about the criticism, it may be because it struck a nerve and concerns something that is very important to you. If it only irritated--or even amused--you, it may have fallen lower on your value scale. For example, if someone criticized how you handled a particular work situation, you may feel stronger emotions than if they suggested that, "Yellow is not your best color." (Unless of course, your style is very important to you!)

Keep in mind that there’s a fine line between thinking about a situation and obsessing over it. To check that, consider your motives for hanging onto the thought. Are you obsessing so you can grow and learn, or is it because you just can't accept the criticism?

Separate the Emotion from The Person

Next, it’s important to separate the content of the feedback from any negative emotions, or the way the feedback was presented. Ask yourself, “If this same suggestion had been delivered gently from a caring friend, would I give it more credence?”

Also think about frequency. Have you heard this feedback from more than one source on more than one occasion? Are people you love and trust mentioning it to you? Is there a pattern developing? If so, it may be time to give the feedback some serious consideration. Beth told me about a time when three different people in her life separately reminded her of a certain negative tendency. The combined feedback helped her understand her behavior and make a positive change.

Decide How to Respond

If, after reasonable thought, you decide that the criticism was not justified, or not particularly important, you can either ignore the comment and move on (nothing says you have to respond to every email, for example) or leave it at the simple "Thank you for your comment."

If, however, you do feel that the feedback was helpful (no matter how delivered), contact the person (by email, note, or in person) and genuinely thank them for taking the time to point out the issue. You may even briefly explain what steps you are taking to improve in that area. Who knows? You may begin to develop a very strong relationship with them!

Do you remember my response to John who asked how to deal with negative feedback? In that article I talked about this step in great detail. By the way, one year later John wrote back to me and told me that his relationships grew stronger as a result of following my advice. He even told me that on his annual review, how he handled negative feedback was listed as a positive!

Finally, Move On

The final step is to move on. This is easier said than done. Stick with your decision to either 1) ignore the comment or make only a cursory response, or 2) to incorporate the feedback into your personal growth.

If the first, then stop your thoughts from revisiting the criticism. Replace them with your decision to move on (i.e. remind yourself “That is done. Over. Fini’. Kaput.”) If the second, develop a plan to benefit from the feedback. Do you need to write things down more? Do you need to make extra effort to greet people during meetings? Do you need to practice proper pronunciation of a particular word? Do what you have to do to train yourself to benefit from the suggestion. 

In review then, when dealing with a negative comment, expect criticism, practice a response, buy some time, say “thank you,” vent appropriately, give thought to the feedback, decide how to respond, and then, move on.

Stay tuned, because in the next episode we'll be discussing how to deal with difficult people!

This is The Public Speaker, Lisa B. Marshall with Beth Beutler this week. Passionate about communication, your success is our business.

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If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.

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