Taking criticism is a skill — and being able to learn from harsh criticism requires a pretty extreme level of proficiency. There are a few ways to build up your tolerance for criticism, though, and to move closer to that level, even if you can’t convince your critics to make the switch to a more constructive approach.
1. Ask for criticism in writing
Listening to someone go on and on about what you aren’t getting right is extremely difficult. After even just a few minutes it can take the patience of a saint to refrain from telling a critic exactly where they can put their comments. But if you can ask a critic to write down his or her comments, it’s worth the effort. You’ll have a little more distance when you go over the criticism in question (and if you decide that you aren’t going to actually read those notes, you have a little more leeway to do so). You might also find that more than a few critics will decide against the effort required to write out their thoughts.
2. Resolve valid criticism
Harsh criticism isn’t exactly a great way to motivate change, but in some cases the criticism does come about from a valid issue. If you find yourself on the receiving end of some unfriendly opinions, it’s worth finding out if such a concern is actually valid. Ask someone external to the situation for an opinion, run some numbers — whatever it takes to make a decision one way or the other. If you come to the conclusion that it isn’t valid, ignore the remarks and go do something happy. If it is valid, you may need to consider addressing it.
3. Get concrete details
One of the most frustrating types of criticism is the variety where you don’t actually get any information on what you’re supposed to change. More than a few disapproving authority figures will launch into a litany of the many things they think you’re doing wrong. If you can get them to switch to more constructive criticism, you can cut a critical conversation short with something along the lines of, “If I do this, you’ll be be happy?” Actually doing it, of course, remains up to you.
4. Head your critics off at the pass
There are some people who’s function in life seems to offer criticism, deserved or not. Of the top of your head, you can probably think of a handful of such individuals that you have to deal with. For many such critics, though, you can often redirect them to other conversations: ask them about their own projects, their families or whatever they’re interested in. You’ll probably still get an earful or two, but if you can head off their criticism and bring the conversation around to something more comfortable, it will be easier to handle the remaining criticism.
5. Recognize that some people really don’t have anything better to do
Constructive criticism is one thing, but some people spend most of their day making harsh evaluations that aren’t exactly helpful to the recipient. It’s a fact of life, and the only way to deal with such people is generally to ignore them or deal with them. Depending on how important they are to you — ignoring a parent is rarely practical — your best option may be to just do what you can to make them happy and just wait until they leave the room to do your own things. It’s not the best of situations, but it’s an option that many people have used.
6. Keep your emotions out of it
It’s easier said than done, but responding defensively or getting emotional during a critical discussion just draws it out longer. If you’re not defensive of your behavior (whether you’re right or wrong), most critics will take that as a sign that you’re at least considering their comments — making them at least a little happier about the situation. If you can manage this sort of approach, you’ll at least get out of the discussion that much faster.
Criticism is complex: on the one hand, we want to please our supervisors, our family, our friends — all those people in a position to offer criticism. But at the same time, it’s rare that we can resolve every complaint or will want to. That means that handling critiques, rather than necessarily responding to them, is an important skill for most of us to get by.
But criticism also an issue of personality. Some people are just better equipped emotionally, to listen to an evaluation of their performance. That means that different methods of handling criticism (or outright avoiding it) are necessary, especially when avoiding the emotional aspects of criticism just doesn’t seem possible. These approaches are just a few that I’ve used or seen over the years. If you’ve had luck with a different approach, tell us about it in the comments.