Dealing with Criticism Constructively

Criticism is an unavoidable consequence of success. No one escapes it. Presidents are criticized. Even mother Theresa was criticized.

Harsh criticism takes the wind out of our sails. It sometimes makes us want to give up. Sometimes, it leaves us with doubts that hobble us for days or even decades. Even constructive criticism can keep us up late at night or kill momentum in an otherwise exciting project.

It seems there is very little we can do to stop criticism other than to do nothing and hide. Put yourself out there to do just about anything worth doing, and it’s coming, baby.

There is, however, a lot we can do to process criticism. Since we control at least 50% of all communication as the receiver, we can control how we hear criticism and how it affects us. We can actually control MORE than 50% if we know it’s coming, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Criticism is a gift. If looked at from this perspective, we can realize certain advantages. It improves what we’re doing. It tells us where we are, or at least how others perceive where we are. It can actually build confidence if it’s leveraged correctly.

Here are a few things you can do to turn criticism from something bad into something productive in your life.

1. Realize that criticism is a natural part of success. Winston Churchill once wrote “You’ve got enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something in your life.” Think about criticism in this way: if someone has criticized you, it means that they paid attention to what you’ve done. It means that they have exerted energy to figure out how they think you’re doing is related to them. And it means that they cared enough about whatever you’re doing to make the time to either write or verbally express their criticism. Criticism is actually an honor of sorts.

2. Get rid of your failure support team. Professional enemies, jealous friends, and habitual critics create a lot of noise. The value they provide is diminished by their intention to do you harm. Criticism is often random from these people, and it is never satisfied. Just put them on ignore.

3. When you can’t ignore your critics, respond strategically. Agree with them. There is usually some truth behind every criticism. It may be completely it of context, not relevant to the situation at hand, or purely done for cruelty, but it’s not completely manufactured. If someone says: “You’re ALWAYS ignore people!” Agree with the part that’s true. “You’re right that I didn’t pay enough attention to Sally during our staff meeting today.”

4. Take constructive criticism seriously. If it’s constructive, then it’s not meant to be harmful. This criticism, like all criticism, is often difficult to swallow, but it is a gift. It’s not always easy to give constructive criticism, so when someone does this for you, be grateful and spend some quality time thinking about it. This kind of feedback might not be helpful, but it is definitely worth considering.

5. Thank your critics. Let it be known that you appreciate constructive criticism. Not only does this make it easier for people to give you this kind of criticism, but the act of thanking people releases you from defensive posture. Over time, thanking your critics makes it easier for you to receive it.

6. Deliberately seek constructive criticism. We do this by getting ahead of things and seeking criticism before it’s too late to do anything about it.

For example, about 10 years ago, I knew this little brussels-sprout-headed old lady who actively criticized just about everything I did. I was usually chairing the meetings and there was usually a full room. She would show up, determined to be public about whatever she had to say. She always had good suggestions. And to be sure, she knew more about several programs than I did. She was just a little short on tact and diplomacy. She embarrassed me on more than one occasion.

I knew she was adding value. I also knew my own pride is what was embarrassing me, so I turned it off. I started actively seeking her input. I went out of my way to make sure she was invited to my meetings – even when she wasn’t. She had a special place in my meetings.

When she was coming, I would prepare better. When I saw her mouth getting ready to move, I knew I had missed something important. When she didn’t comment, I figured I had done something right. It was a great relationship, and to this day, I look for my brussels-sprout-headed old lady surrogate when I have meetings.

Can you think of any other advice for dealing with criticism?
What’s worked well for you?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

This is great advice, Dave – and not just for individuals. When I talk to organizations about using social media, the invariably talk about “negative comments” on their wall. I tell them to do #5 – say thank you because it’s likely revealing a blind spot…or reiterating a truth you’ve always known but chose to ignore.

Bonnie Zimmerman

Excellent perspective! I like Andrew’s analogy also – Thank you both for giving me a new way to look at this.

David Dejewski

Andy – interesting the idea of applying this to the organization. I wasn’t thinking about that whenI wrote it, but it makes sense that it could be done. Thanks for the comment!

Marian Henderson

Admittedly I tend to take criticism personally on occasion. These suggestions are about reframing the criticism to make it more constructive and less condemning. The critics will always be there – I guess it’s up to me how I receive their criticism! Thanks for the tips, David!

Greg Jaquez

No. 2 is especially intriguing. I’m sure many have had friends who have turned into jealous enemies when success comes your way. All you can do is wait them out and maybe they will come around later. It’s hard, but don’t let people like this tear you down and keep you from your successes.

Chris Bieker

Appreciate this article. We could all learn from your comments. Do you mind if I share the article in our employee newsletter? Credit will be given, of course.