Learning to Take Critcism

This is a tough one, right?

Criticism happens to all of us, whether it’s in the form of evaluations after a presentation, the official annual review, unofficial feedback from a boss or colleagues, or editorial comments on something we’ve written.

First, we feel shock: “You didn’t love it?”

Next comes the hurt: “You just said you think my baby is UGLY?!?”

And then, generally, the outrage: “How dare YOU criticize ME?!”

If you’re able to respond with equanimity immediately, going straight to “maybe my critic has a point – I should assess this rationally,” check your pulse. You might be dead.

But then what?

Usually, responding to criticism is something we do less well early in life and our careers, and, hopefully, is something we learn to do better as we mature as people and professionals.

Let me offer a brief example from my own career. Early on, a boss told me that I make decisions rashly and without doing research or considering the data or other options.

I was young, and I didn’t particularly like or respect this guy. In my mind, he was so risk-averse, he was probably afraid to change his socks. So I dismissed his comments with a “Whatever, Poky. I’m decisive, and you just can’t handle it.”

However, the issue of perceived (too?) rapid decision making came up again later in my career, when I was more experienced and able to think about it rationally.

Here comes the advice part.

The first thing I did was unpack what he was really saying.

“Rashly” is a judgement, and a fairly harsh one at that. Let’s try putting it more neutrally.

“You make decisions too quickly.”

Better, but that’s still a subjective opinion.

“You make decisions more quickly than I am comfortable with.”

Ah ha! That’s truth, it’s accurate, and it doesn’t put either party in the place of necessarily being right or wrong. That I could work with.

What about the second part? “Without doing research or considering the data or other options”?

That’s an attribution of cause that may or may not be correct, but it’s what he was perceiving from the outside.

OK, now I had a neutrally-phrased critical observation attributed to a cause that might or might not be correct, which is a good starting place.

The second thing I did was to ask people I trust for some insight on this. “We both know I tend to be pretty decisive, but I’ve been given feedback that I make decisions too quickly and maybe without considering all the data. What do you think?”

At that point, I got some really useful feedback from people who knew me well. They helped me see that because I process information quickly and play it pretty close to the vest while I’m doing so (in Sally Hogshead‘s schema, I’m a “secret weapon”), from the outside it can look hasty. All others see is that I made a decision quickly, and they don’t know how I chose. So what I need to do is let key stakeholders into my process a little more, so they’ll be more comfortable.

What did I learn about taking criticism?

  1. What’s the source? Does this person have my best interests at heart? Do I trust him? Is she being objective? Some people are just ill-intentioned or have an axe to grind, and over-reacting to their feedback doesn’t help you.
  2. Have I heard this more than once? The more frequently you hear something and the more people you hear it from, the more likely it is to have some degree of truth.
  3. How can I reframe this in a neutral/objective way? Try to take the judgement out and concentrate only on what’s at the root of the critique. And remember that the critique is always from a particular perspective.
  4. What’s the critique versus the purported cause? Try to separate the feedback itself from any attribution of cause, since your critic might have correctly identified a symptom, but might very well be misattributing what’s driving it.
  5. Who can help me? Ask people who know you well and where you can trust what they think. The people around us often see us more clearly than we see ourselves.
  6. Finally, take everything you learned from this process and apply it to how you can improve in the future.

I’ll admit, it’s a lot easier to brush off criticism with a, “What an asshole! What does SHE know?” And it’s totally acceptable to START there. The key is what happens next.