Responding to Criticism: A Guide for Everyone

publication date: Jul 24, 2019
author/source: Jeanette Bicknell

Everyone has received negative feedback at some point in their lives. If you’re lucky, the criticism was relevant, and delivered with sensitivity and tact. Unfortunately this is often not the case. Criticism can be delivered so badly that any value it may have for the recipient is all but impossible to recover. Yet attending to criticism, no matter how tactless or ill-conceived, is important. We get better by attending to critical feedback. One of the biggest differences between novices and experts in a given domain is that while novices pay more attention to positive feedback, experts hone their skills by attending more to negative feedback. (See: Stacey R. Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach, “Tell Me What I Did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback,” Journal of Consumer Research June 2012.)

Despite the potential value of negative feedback, much of what I’ve seen written about responding to criticism is not very good. Recipients of negative feedback are told not to “take it personally.” But whether or not it is useful to take criticism “personally” depends very much on what kind of criticism we’re talking about. Certainly, a scientist should not take it “personally” if her methodology is criticized. And a graphic designer should not take it “personally” if a client rejects one of his designs. Yet some legitimate criticism is of a personal nature, and one can only learn from it if it is taken “personally.” A fundraiser who is criticized for having an abrasive manner does in fact need to take the criticism “personally” if he or she wishes to change and be more effective in the job.

The key thing about responding to any criticism is to put yourself in the correct mindset so that you can learn from criticism. Think carefully about critical feedback. Try to separate those aspects of the criticism that may be useful from those that are not. This can be difficult to do. It might help to discuss the criticism with a trusted friend or mentor – someone who respects you enough to tell you the truth, even if the truth is hard to hear.

Another piece of advice I’ve seen regarding criticism is to “ignore the haters” – with the implication that anyone who offers criticism is a “hater.” A more helpful suggestion is to consider the source of the criticism. Is it your boss delivering the criticism, a coworker, your spouse, a stranger? How seriously to take the criticism and how to respond will depend on the answer to this question. Is the person criticizing you angry or upset? This might mean that the criticism is unfair or inappropriate. But it is impossible to be sure. True words are sometimes spoken in anger. Again, discuss the criticism with someone you trust, or try to have a conversation with your critic when he or she is calmer.

When responding to criticism, even unfair or misplaced criticism, try not to be defensive. Do not attempt to answer your critic on the spot. It is much more important to make sure you understand what is being said. Repeat back your critic’s words. This will show that you have been listening, and it will also give you time to frame a response. Ask questions to make sure that you have in fact understood. As difficult as it is to hear criticism, walking away confused or unsure about what you may have been doing wrong is worse and more damaging in the long run.

Sadly, some of the people who criticize you (while perhaps not “haters”) will have questionable motives, or are acting from confused emotions. But if someone genuinely wants to help you or is in a role where giving critical feedback is appropriate, then listen, learn what you can, and be grateful. It isn’t easy for most people to offer negative feedback, and when they do so out of a desire to help you, recognize that they have tried to do you a favour.

Jeanette Bicknell helps people who don’t get along to work together.

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