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How to Take Criticism Gracefully

These 12 tricks will help you respond to any critic.

Key points

  • Handing criticism involves understanding the critic. Negative feedback arises in different contexts, and each merits a different approach.
  • In the face of "angry criticism," avoid defensiveness and try to understand the underlying emotions and motives of the critic.
  • Reframe criticism as constructive feedback and extract the productive suggestions beneath otherwise critical words.

Criticism is part and parcel of living in the world. Posting on social media, performing your stand-up comedy, or even coaching your kid’s soccer team will all invite judgment and criticism. And doing anything truly innovative will guarantee it. So how can you ready yourself and not be discouraged from stepping outside of your box? Here are 12 ways to deal with four different kinds of criticism.

First, how to deal with angry criticism. You’ve rubbed someone the wrong way, or crossed their path during an angry streak, and now they’re letting you have it:

1. Dig for the softer emotion beneath their anger.

Angry criticism almost always means the critic feels hurt in some way. One key thing to remember during these times: anger is a secondary emotion—it’s a reaction to and an expression of a softer primary emotion underneath like hurt, shame, guilt, or humiliation. People get hurt first, and then they get angry. But when you dig beneath the superficial anger in search of the softer emotion, it’s much easier to feel sympathetic toward them. And while it’s hard to feel sorry for someone whose feedback is aimed at you like a dart, try to think about what button might have gotten pushed. And then, do this:

2. Be noble.

Kill them with kindness. Well, maybe not kill them (I know it might be tempting when they’re coming at you), but throw them off balance by taking it in stride, expressing kindness and resisting defensive reactions. Unless your critic is truly evil, they’ll hem and haw and maybe even apologize. Handle the situation in a way that you imagine someone both confident and poised would handle it. You’ll likely see them soften.

3. If you’re just the messenger, agree with the critic.

If you’re getting panned for something beyond your control, align yourself with the critic—you could agree, “I know, you’re right. It’s a shame that we didn’t win the tournament. I wish it had worked out better, too.” This will redirect the anger away from you and get you out of the line of fire.

What not to do?

4. Don’t get defensive or blame others.

Reacting defensively shows insecurity, plus you’ll just come across as aggressive and difficult. And blaming is even worse. Resist throwing someone under the bus.

Next, what to do with negative feedback that’s not angry, comes from a good place, and is presented fairly and professionally? This is often the hardest to hear. It stinks to hear your idea, performance, or talent isn’t up to par.

5. It’s not what they say, it’s what you hear.

This is the big one. Interpretation is everything. If a critical comment has truly shaken your confidence, thrown you into a multi-day crying jag, or left you nodding and smiling like a Stepford wife on the outside but dying inside, ask yourself “What does this comment mean about me?” Likely, your answer won’t have anything to do with what your critic said. For instance, perhaps your critic said, “Your resume wasn’t quite what we’re looking for right now,” but you took it as, “My entire career has been a waste; they caught me trying to fake it.” Notice that those are two completely different statements. Avoid over-interpretation and speculation—they’ll just make you feel lousy.

6. Consider that the critic might be wrong.

A colleague of mine recently criticised another for focusing too much on taking care of patients and not enough on research. The target of the criticism was devastated until she realized it was just his opinion. From her point of view and values, he was just plain wrong. Ultimately, feedback is an opinion shaped by the giver’s context, values, and place in life. You can always reject criticism that does not match what your core beliefs tell you is correct. This can even be empowering. When it’s your turn to hear criticism, remember: just because someone says it, doesn’t mean it’s true.

7. Criticism might mean you’re a misunderstood innovator.

Perhaps folks just aren’t ready for your work. Almost every true innovator has stories about collecting reams of negative feedback before finally breaking through and finding success. Give it some time, respond calmly and logically a la tip #2, and you and your ideas may gain credibility over time.

However, also consider the following.

8. Maybe your critic has a point.

The flip side of the misunderstood genius is the slacker with potential. Sometimes criticism might just mean your work isn’t your best effort yet. Maybe your presentation is sloppy, or your idea not well-thought-out enough. Seize the criticism as an opportunity. Some extra polish may make your work shine. Thank your critic and get to work.

9. Mine the criticism for advice.

Ask any successful person about his or her early days and you’ll be met with shocking stories of spectacular failure. In Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, he recalls sticking every rejection letter on a nail in the wall of his bedroom until it would no longer support all that weight. And then? He tossed the nail, replaced it with a spike, and kept going. But in between those rejection letters, he also got some handwritten scribbles of praise and advice, which kept him afloat even as the spike continued to fill. Likewise, hold on tightly to those pieces of guidance and admiration you pick up along the way, amid negative feedback. A compliment, even wrapped in rejection, can go a long way.

Okay, next, what if you’re a people pleaser? Or an overachiever used to hearing nothing but praise? In short, what if you’re a newbie to criticism (and scared of it to boot)?

10. Re-imagine yourself as a gritty survivor.

Or a weathered grande dame. Or a man of principle. You get the picture. Many of us who are thin-skinned have spent most of our lives deeply concerned whether everyone likes us and making sure that they do. Maybe we’re a good girl or good guy who’s never really stepped out of line for fear of potentially disapproving eyes. Or maybe we’ve been sheltered and have simply never been through the wringer. Regardless, avoiding criticism is exhausting. Approval is very different from respect. Shape your perspective on criticism to understand it as a way to expand your experiences and eventually command respect. Rethink criticism as an indicator that you’re doing important work, and acceptance of it as a sign that you’re truly grown up.

Next, what about blatant insults, including snide remarks from internet trolls or those folks who were just born on the wrong side of the bed?

11. Consider the context.

A listener asked me how to deal specifically with critical internet comments. Well, a wise person once said, “The comments section is the bathroom wall of the internet.” I love this comparison. In both situations, you’ll find a gem once in a while, but generally, you can ignore all of it, or take it with a grain of salt. Would you believe that Harry is a loser just because you saw it scribbled in a random stall? Also, regarding the comments section, discredit anything anonymous. Those comments really, honestly, are not about you—it’s often a performance to garner fleeting attention, or an insecure little power trip for the troll. Remember, anyone who is too afraid to put their name on their comment is not worth the energy of acknowledging.

12. Remember that the criticism says more about the critic than it says about you.

A critic’s judgmental remark doesn’t mean the remark is true; it means the critic is being judgmental. Likewise with catty, entitled, or selfish criticism. The only person these remarks degrade is the critic.

A final note: let’s be honest, the only way to avoid criticism is, as the old saying goes, to “Say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.” And that’s no fun. So instead, collect those critical comments, stick them on that spike, and just keep swimming.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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