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How to Handle Criticism

How to Handle Criticism
Screaming

How well do you handle criticism? I’ve been dealt a lot of criticism ranging from harsh feedback to feeling completely insulted. Although the saying goes, “Stick and stones can break by bones, but words can never hurt me,” a harsh piece of feedback can definitely leave you with a bruised ego.

Despite the sting, I’ve found criticism can often be useful. Feedback can help you fix mistakes and improve. I believe criticism can often show you what your own blind spots are, pointing you out to problems before they arise. I’ve found my ability to use sometimes harsh feedback, has given me an advantage in my own self-improvement.

Brace for Impact – Managing Criticism is More Than a Platitude

If negative feedback can be useful, why does it make you feel lousy in the first place?

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I don’t have a scientific answer for this, but I believe a lot of it has to do with our ancestors. Living in small groups of about a hundred people, becoming a social outcast could be a death sentence. So humans became sensitive to any threats on their status or social standing. Bullying still happens, but in today’s world, where you may be in a group of thousands, it is far easier to use feedback instead of automatically assuming it is a personal attack.

My point is that criticism will always feel lousy, and saying some inspirational quote probably won’t change this much. But just because it can feel bad, doesn’t mean you can’t use it.

Distinguish Between Feedback and Insults

You can’t use feedback if you can’t first distinguish it from insults. Sometimes the line that separates feedback from insults can be blurry, but I’ve found most people draw the line so that many pieces of useful feedback are labeled as insults.

Just because feedback is harsh, doesn’t mean it is an insult. An insult is a tactic of the other person to manipulate or bully you and doesn’t have anything to do with you. You have to handle insults differently than feedback, but the first step is to know where to draw the line.

You can’t be perfect in distinguishing between the two, but I’ve found it useful to ask what the intention was. Are they trying to help or communicating how they feel about you or your actions? Even if it was harsh that is probably just feedback. If it was only an attempt to manipulate you or others than it might be an insult.

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How to Use Feedback

Once you’ve gotten over the initial sting of some harsh criticism, you need to ask yourself how you are going to use it. I’ve found that there are generally three options: learn, ignore or assert.

1) Learn

Was the feedback genuine and useful? If it is true, you can try to learn from it. I don’t choose whether to use feedback based on how harsh it was. The most negative feedback can often open you up to complete blind spots.

When I first started writing I had a few pieces of criticism that stung. But I decided to turn it into advice, and it helped me overcome a lot of my blind spots. Taking negative feedback and making a mental note of it to improve later can turn a harsh blow into a useful aid later on.

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2) Ignore

Sometimes the feedback is genuine, but it isn’t useful. I’ve received a lot of advice in the form of criticism that may have been valid but I chose to ignore. Before I started my own personal development website over a year ago, I was told by some people that I shouldn’t do it. I considered that advice, but chose to ignore it.

Ignoring doesn’t mean you become defensive or hostile towards the other person. Sometimes all it requires is informing them that you simply believe they are wrong. If you become hostile towards someone who is trying to offer feedback, you can often stop them from giving you useful feedback later.

3) Assert

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If you’ve decided you can’t learn from a piece of feedback, sometimes you need to assert yourself. If you are being manipulated or bullied by the other person, you need to stand your ground.

This is why it becomes important to draw the line between feedback and insults. Reacting defensively to feedback usually only serves to make you look insecure or can make the situation worse by damaging your relationship. But if the person is using criticism as an attempt to bully or manipulate, calmly asserting yourself can handle the situation.

Usually I find it is a matter of volume. If someone occasionally gives a piece of feedback that I don’t like and choose to ignore, going on the defensive can prevent you from getting useful feedback later. But for those people that are constantly criticizing when it isn’t helpful or polite, you have to be assertive.

I examine any feedback I get through these three filters. If I can use the feedback, I thank the other person for their input and start using it immediately. If I can’t use it, but the feedback was genuine, ignoring it and moving forward might be the best option. Finally if the feedback wasn’t genuine or it is being used to manipulate, I assert myself.

Notice how there isn’t a fourth option of, “quietly simmer and resent the comment.” It can be hard to know where to place feedback, but it needs to fit somewhere within the three. Reacting aggressively to helpful advice isn’t useful, but staying quiet in the face of a bully won’t work either.

Scott Young is a University student who writes about personal development, productivity and goal setting. Some of Scott’s popular articles include: Habitual Mastery, Double Your Reading Rate and How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying. You can get his free e-book on Holistic Learning here

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Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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