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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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