Handling Criticism: Winning!

6 Apr

Handling criticism correctly is not just a built-in defense mechanism but a learned trait just like communication skills.  It’s easy to get upset, to get defensive, to assume the worst about ourselves, to want to hide from the world but none of those ways are effective because they either ignore the criticism completely or give too much power away.

On Tuesday afternoon, a critical work email arrived in my inbox.  I read it.  It was long and although not a personal attack, had I been in a low self-esteem mood, I’m sure I would have taken it that way.

I read it and then I closed the email and walked away.  Never respond to a critical email right away. Unless you want to acknowledge that you received it and will be responding later after you’ve had time to evaluate it. Don’t respond to anything in the heat of the moment. Had I responded right then, I would have been defensive and a tad annoyed.  (For others, this might come out in anger or a personal attack.)

I thought about the email while running and which parts were justifiable.  I distanced myself from the situation and tried to view the event (which prompted the email) through unbiased eyes. I thought about each point in the email and broke it into: doable changes, impossible changes, criticism that didn’t seem warranted.

Then I forwarded the email to my boss with my thoughts on what I could change going forward, justification for things I couldn’t change, and a listing of the critiques I felt were unjust.  When he responded in complete agreement, I knew that I was ready to respond to the email.

I thanked the writer for his feedback.  I began and ended the email by listing the changes that I would implement based on his feedback.  I justified my reasons for the things I couldn’t change.  For instance, he wanted to know why not everyone had been required to bring business cards to a particular networking event.  I explained that I had considered this in the early planning stages but knew that this would discourage a third of our workforce from participating since they don’t have business cards.  I carefully rewrote this section to ensure that it didn’t come off defensive but just as me simply providing him with the facts that he probably hadn’t been aware of.

I ignored the harshest critiques that I felt were unwarranted.  There is no place for an argument over email.  If something still needs to be cleared up, he can choose to do it face to face. It’s hard to not defend ourselves, to not refute things point by point, to not paint ourselves in a perfect light.

We can’t force people to like us. We can’t force people to always respond well to our leadership or to understand why we do things a certain way.  If someone wants to understand, they will approach you differently than someone who just wants to pick a fight. Adjust your response to the manner in which they convey their criticism.

And don’t be afraid to just walk away. The worst thing you can do is give in to the “All” approach.  Don’t decide it is ALL correct and start pitying yourself.  Don’t decide it is ALL false and ignore it completely. Get second and third opinions, role play what a third party would say, try to weed through the frustration to find something useful that you can sincerely thank the criticizer for.

Even if you can’t always be proud of the actions that led to the critique, you have a second chance to be proud of how you handled the critique. (Trust me.  If you remain calm and rational, if you respond with effusive thanks, if you provide well-thought out details on how you will fix/implement/improve something based on the critique, you will defuse the frustration before it boils over.)

And that makes you the winner.


One Response to “Handling Criticism: Winning!”

  1. Susanna April 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    This is really good, Liz.

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