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Dealing Positively with Criticism

Dealing Positively with Criticism

Criticism is never easy to take under any circumstances for most people.  This is because almost all individuals experience criticism as rejection. For many of us this feeling started early in childhood when criticism (well-founded or otherwise) was usually delivered in a parental way to correct an apparently “wrong” or unwanted behavior and move it to a “right” or acceptable behavior.  Even in the most caring of households, this corrective criticism would often create a degree of annoyance, defensiveness or even resentment, and it is these rather negative feelings that are carried into the school-room (where yet more parentally corrective statements are often made) and into adulthood.

Despite our natural suspicions, as adults, we also appreciate that criticism can be valuable, particularly if it is well-intended or constructive and not maliciously intended or destructive. The problem is that most people will typically continue to characterize all criticism as likely to be destructive and therefore engage in defensive tactics very quickly to handle it (and in some instances use offensive tactics to deal with the “attack”). However, even when criticism is not well planned or delivered in a negative way, being defensive is not the best way to deal with it and it is therefore better to try to handle all criticism in the most positive way possible. In order to do this, there are three main handling strategies we can all adopt:

1. Listen carefully and with an open mind before responding

If a colleague or boss offers candid and even what may appear to be quite harsh feedback that feels like criticism, the best initial response is to listen carefully to what is being said, even if your opinion of the person or the reasons why he or she is offering the feedback are questionable. In other words, instead of being immediately defensive or thinking about how to counter his or her comments, an individual should let the feedback giver offer his or her feedback with full neutral attention and as little interruption as possible and keep an open-mind that some truth may be usefully revealed.  Once the feedback has been offered, clarification can be sought wherever this is necessary. This may be done throughout the conversation by paraphrasing statements and/or summarizing what you’re hearing in your own words, always ensuring that good eye contact is maintained to show you’re always actively engaged and interested (even if you don’t agree with the feedback or think that it may have been unfairly offered). 

2. Stay calm and considered at all times

Although some feedback and direct criticism can be delivered in a loud, rude, pointed, personal, sarcastic and generally negative fashion, the best response is always to stay objective about what the feedback-giver is saying (just as you would in any other normal communication situation). Hence, by being calm and measured in your demeanor and responses, you can steer the conversation to more acceptable territory. This is often best achieved by asking lots of questions to clarify the base concerns that are being highlighted and to help overcome any confusion or misinterpretation that may be prevailing. Asking questions not only shows that you are taking the feedback seriously but it can also help you to calmly and reasonable gauge whether the negative feedback is appropriate, justified or relevant (as we describe in the third step below). Questions are therefore best aimed at eliciting specific examples and instances of the types of behavior that are at the root of the feedback (once again helping to keep the whole exchange on a reasonable, quiet and calm footing). 

3. Determine whether the feedback is useful and/or appropriate

Even if the particular feedback or criticism is given in less than ideal ways (for example in a raised voice or in public where others can hear), it is important that we carefully determine why the criticism is being offered and whether or not it is useful and/or appropriate.  Perhaps the best way to do this is to use the time when you are listening and clarifying the feedback and getting the discussion into the calmest possible waters to take a step back to assess the situation that led to this discussion. This involves making a personally assessment of overall validity of the criticism, even if this is only a part of the overall message.  Hence, you need to carefully think through why your behavior has prompted this feedback at all and “owning-up” to any responsibility you may have for this criticism to be levelled. This allows you to respond in a reasonable manner, thanking the person for the feedback and accepting that you welcome the chance to talk, but then making comment about the overall appropriateness of what has been said. This may include direct contradictions where the facts are incorrect or more indirect contradictions (where your words, attitude or actions were seen out of context, for example).

In the final analysis, criticism of any kind (constructively or destructively intended) is difficult for everyone to take. However, listening carefully, keeping calm at all times and then commenting on appropriateness, in this order, is a simple but effective handling process.  The more that we adopt this approach, the less likely it is that other people will level unfair criticisms or feedback which they have not thought through carefully, as your reputation for responding reasonable in all circumstances will precede you.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Deb SiversonMay 8, 2013 at 9:38 am

    I believe you can educate on how to deal more effectively with criticism. In my way of thinking criticism is a toxic behavior because of how the information is sent or received. I teach antidotes to Gottmans 4 toxic behaviors…and I also work with leaders to learn how to deliver SAGE feedback which lessens the likelihood it will be received as critiscm.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerJune 3, 2013 at 3:26 pmAuthor

      Thanks Deb and yes I agree that criticism can be a toxic behavior, but its still a reality and may even be asked for in some cases (win which case constructiveness become the aim I think).

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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