19 Jan 2023

How to Take Criticism

The immediate kneejerk response to most criticism is to reject it. Even if the criticism is totally unjustified, however, and your indignation is entirely understandable, you should not lose your temper. If you wish to set out to prove that you are being misjudged, then you will need a cool head and calm nerves. An intemperate reaction will do little to establish yourself as the kind of person who never puts a foot wrong.

None of us likes having our faults or mistakes listed, but none of us is perfect and we all do have faults and make mistakes. If the criticism is justified, then you must accept it with as good grace as possible. This is, of course, easier said than done. It is all too easy to react emotionally to criticism, to exaggerate and distort what has been said. For example, you may have submitted a project report at work and been told that you’d failed to supply any clear recommendations. Instead of focusing on the actual, constructive, remarks you fly off the handle, interpreting the criticism as a sweeping statement of lack of confidence in your abilities. This is a prime example of how, if you allow emotions to take over, you can easily become swept up in a maelstrom of negativity, which renders you blind to the actual truth of what has been said.

That said, you are entitled to assess the criticism as objectively as possible and consider that it is unjustified. Sometimes people dole out criticism simply because they are coming up against a different world view, a different set of priorities or a different way of doing things. They react to that perceived difference by criticising, but this is an emotional response, not an objective critique. If you are the recipient of this type of criticism, it is entirely appropriate to point this out: “I know this is not the way you would approach the problem, but I think you’ll find my results are just as reliable – it’s just our methodologies that differ.”

You might also consider that a critical remark does not always come from a helpful point of view. Sometimes people wield criticism as a way of asserting themselves, of eliminating the competition, or asserting their superiority. They are using criticism as an instrument in their own power struggle, and their remarks say more about their ambition or ruthless self-assertiveness than your failings. If you feel you are on the receiving end of this sort of criticism, rise above it with a display of flawless civility and exaggerated gratitude – they might even have the grace to feel embarrassed.

Consider the context of the criticism – a comments thread at the end of an online post is hardly the place where you are going to find nuanced and considered critiques; insulting remarks and crude negativity in this sort of forum is an unfortunate epidemic, which should be taken with a pinch of salt. Anyone who offers anonymous criticism is not worthy of notice, and their online comments may well be about self-promotion or troublemaking, rather than constructive feedback. Similarly, if the criticism is made in an unfair way (perhaps when you are unable to answer back or offer any defence), or at the wrong time, or in front of the wrong people, then you may rightly point this out.

 If, on the other hand, criticism is handed you by someone you respect or admire, then you must listen carefully and take stock. That means thoroughly addressing all the points that have been made – don’t just cherry-pick the remarks that you find acceptable, which will come across as evasive. If you can’t remedy the situation without the help of others, then you must ask for that help. If the solution lies entirely in your hands, then you should acknowledge this and take the necessary steps. If there is no solution to the problem, then you must explain the situation and ask for understanding and tolerance.

Turn the negative experience of being criticised into something positive. See it as a useful opportunity to improve, or to identify and eliminate bad habits. Restrain the hurt inner child who hates being criticised and try and cut through your own feelings of dismay and dejection. Remind yourself that it is simply your actions that are being criticised, not your entire persona. Set yourself the task of graciously thanking the critic for their insights and recommendations. Other people may well observe your cordial behaviour and you will gain kudos and admiration for being resilient and positive. Acknowledge the validity of the critique, then embark on a simple course of action: rectifying what you have got wrong and doing better.


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