Criticism: Can You Handle It?

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How to receive and give criticism without hurting your relationships

The path to success is paved with hard work. It is also paved with criticism. Criticism is a big component of success because it helps us grow. Well, depending on how well it is given and received. If your boss criticised your work, that is an opportunity for you to learn how to do it better, grow your skills and, overall, grow as a person. The same goes if you’re an entrepreneur, and someone criticised your product or service. You get a chance to fine-tune it and make it better. But criticism gets a bad rap, mostly because some of us don’t know how to give it constructively and also because it hurts. We are social beings, and no one likes to be told he is not good enough.

Studies show that we experience pride or happiness or both when we are praised. This can also raise our self-esteem. But negative evaluation, social psychologists have found, can make us feel the opposite of all these things. It is only natural to feel angry or sad or report low self-esteem after we hear something negative about ourselves or what we offer. Your first instinct may be to act defensively, and that is normal because the brain is only doing what evolution has wired it do to when it spots a “threat” – fight or flight. But, like we mentioned earlier, criticism, when it is constructive, can help us be better. Here’s how to receive it.

Listen

Let’s say your supervisor calls you to his office and tells you he is unhappy about your performance on a recent project. Your first instinct might be to defend yourself, jump in when he is laying out his points (especially if he is doing it in a belittling way). This won’t work. It will only spark emotions and lead you both nowhere. Listen without interrupting the speaker. Interrupting, apart from confirming that you’re not listening, gives the implication that what the other person is saying is not important, and you don’t care or don’t have the time to listen to his take. Try to be calm and listen instead. To help with this, take deep breaths. It will keep the anger or hurt in check.

Ask Questions

Repeat back what the other person said—to make sure you’re on the same page—and ask questions if something is not clear. It puts you on the same page and also shows the other person that you respect his opinion and are committed to finding a solution. When to ask questions? Let the speaker finish his point, and ask your question. This is especially important if you feel the speaker is being unfair or just plain wrong. Try to understand where the speaker is coming from, by asking questions. For example, if your boss says you’re not performing better as expected, instead of right away disagreeing with him, ask why he came to that conclusion, and take time to process what he says.

Don’t Take It Personally

When someone criticizes your performance, don’t take it as a personal attack. A negative review about your work isn’t a reflection of your character. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or wholly incompetent. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is out to get you. It simply means what it means – a negative review about your work. Also, don’t be hard on yourself and berate yourself after a negative evaluation. Avoid the negativity bias trap where you only remember and dwell on negative feedback alone. Your boss might say 90 percent of your work is good and have issues with the remaining 10 percent. It is easy to dwell on the 10 percent he didn’t like and forget that overall you did a good job. Focus on getting better instead of berating yourself.

Say Thank You

Thank the speaker for his perspective. It may be hard, especially if you don’t agree with the said perspectives. But when you get a negative assessment, thank the speaker for his time and opinion, and ask him for his ideas on how he thinks you might improve. Remember that you don’t need to respond right away, especially if emotions like anger are clouding your judgement (if you speak in anger there is a high chance that you’ll regret everything you say in the heat of the moment). Instead, after thanking the speaker, ask for time to think about everything that has been said. This will give you time to work out whether the person is right. Be objective when evaluating the criticism.

Grow

You’ve had time to process the criticism, now what? Is there some truth, any truth, in the criticism? If yes, come up with a plan of action to address the concerns that were raised. It will give the impression that you are responsible and willing to grow.

How to Give Criticism

A few pointers to remember when giving criticism

Mind Your Language:

“You” statements will get you nowhere. They will put the other person on guard,and if they are on guard, they likely won’t listen to your message. All they’ll hear are accusations.

Offer Suggestions:

So, you don’t like the other person’s work? It is not enough to leave it at that. What would you rather they did instead to improve?

Work with Facts:

Can you support whatever you’ve said about the other person’s work? If you don’t have specific evidence to support your message, why are you having the conversation in the first place?

Don’t Make It Personal:

Remember, don’t criticise the person. Make it about their work. Also, never belittle or insult the other person.

Don’t Make It All Negative:

Don’t make your assessment all negative. Point out what you think they are doing right as well.

Timing:

Talk about your concerns when it happens. Don’t bring up concerns from five years ago to this present moment. Plus, bottling them will only create resentment.

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