Early in her career as a brand manager at Aveda Corporation, Annie Gillette Cleveland’s assistant pulled her aside. “She wanted to talk to me about something that was bothering her,” Gillette Cleveland remembers. “She said that the way I used the word ‘I’ to talk about the work we did together made her feel like she wasn’t an important contributor to our team.”
It was a criticism that struck Gillette Cleveland with the force of a thunderbolt. “At first, I was really ashamed,” she admits. “But her feedback made me see clearly how I presented myself and how I was coming across. Looking back, it was probably the best advice I’ve gotten in my entire career.”
From the constructive comments of a formal review to sarcastic zingers hurled by frustrated coworkers or friends, criticism is a part of everyday life. Yet personal development experts agree that getting feedback doesn’t have to be a debilitating experience. On the contrary, they believe that the ability to take in and learn from other people’s perceptions is a key factor in life and career success.
“Criticism can actually be a gift,” says Marilee Adams, PhD, an executive coach and the author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 7 Powerful Tools for Life and Work (Berrett-Koehler, 2004). “We need feedback to grow personally and professionally.”
Still, being told that we’re wrong, off-base or failing to live up to expectations is rarely easy – especially if those criticisms hit a little too close to home. “The truth can hurt,” Adams acknowledges. “Many people, even those on the receiving end of supportive criticism, are inclined to get defensive.”
Sound familiar? Not to worry. A few simple techniques can help you take in the criticisms you need to hear without becoming angry or defensive, and without slipping into a downward spiral of shame and self-doubt.
Perhaps the most important step a person can take to benefit from criticism is to let go of the fantasy that it’s possible, or even desirable, to be perfect. Because through that unforgiving and judgmental lens, even the smallest mistakes will be seen as a personal failure.
You have far more to gain, Adams suggests, by adopting a “Learner mindset.” In this frame of mind, you pause, prior to reacting, in order to evaluate the information coming your way. Adams suggests that you ask “Learner questions” like: “What happened here? What’s useful in this? What are my choices? What is the other person feeling, thinking or wanting from me? What’s my responsibility? What’s the best course of action now?”
The idea, she explains, is to gradually train yourself to take an information-seeking approach to criticism, rather than resorting to more automatic blaming or self-recriminating attitudes – what Adams calls a “Judger mindset.”
“Questions like ‘Why do I always have such bad luck?’ and ‘Who do they think they are?’ derail us from getting where we want to go,” Adams explains.
“Instead, we should try to focus on what our responsibility is in any given situation. The way you react to criticism will become part of the assessor’s evaluation of you. If you handle receiving feedback well, you’ll have more credibility.”
Making the Best of It
The most upsetting critical comments are typically the ones that take us by surprise. Your best strategy? Breathe.
“Take a moment to collect yourself,” suggests Dennis Reina, coauthor of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). “If you do, you’ll have time to calmly absorb what you’ve just heard.”
Next, acknowledge that you hear what’s being said – even if you don’t agree with it or aren’t quite sure how to react. “Saying something like ‘I can see you are very concerned about this’ buys you time to react appropriately,” he says.
As tempting as it might be to lash out in anger or defense, Reina cautions that it’s important to manage your feelings, not only because yelling back (or conversely, becoming silent) will make you look out of control, but also because you need to consider if there is something of value in the critical mix that you might actually need to hear.
To evaluate whether the person giving the criticism has constructive intentions, and whether the criticism has merit, Adams suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- Do I respect this person? Does his or her perspective offer some value?
- Is this person’s intention to be helpful or hurtful?
- Can I learn from this person? Could she have a point? Is it likely that others might share her opinion?
Is it more important for me to be “right,” or to get the potential gift in this message?If you conclude that you are receiving useful feedback, keep breathing, sit back and listen. If you’re too angry or hurt to listen without reacting negatively, or too upset to formulate a thoughtful response, ask for a time-out. “Explain that some of this is a surprise to you,” suggests Barbara Hoese, president of The Inventure Group, a Minneapolis-based workplace consulting firm with Fortune 500 clients, “and ask if there is a time when you can get back together and talk once you’ve had a chance to think it through.”Remaining calm has another advantage: It allows you to turn the complaint into a dialogue. Instead of silently stewing, try asking nonblaming questions – “How would you have liked to have seen this handled differently? Is there something we can do to prevent it in the future?” This helps you better understand the nature of a person’s complaint and increase your chances of leaving the conversation with a constructive plan of action.
Perhaps more important, it allows you to create trust and understanding, where in the past, mutual frustration may have dominated. “If you show someone that your relationship with them is important to you, chances are that you both will be able to talk it out when you calm down,” Reina says.
That said, if it’s clear that your criticizer just wants to make you feel lousy, it’s time to bring some other perspectives to bear. “Reach out to someone you trust, whether it’s a friend, colleague or counselor,” Reina suggests. “Tell them that you received upsetting feedback and ask for their honest, compassionate opinion so that you can sort out what fits and what doesn’t.”
When faced with less-than-constructive or emotionally charged feedback, Reina says, we’d also do well to remember that a critical onslaught may say as much about its author as it does about us. If someone blows her top for reasons that don’t seem well founded, it may be that she is just having a lousy day and lashing out. Finally, if it turns out that you did mess up, forgive yourself. “Realize that you were probably doing your best at the time and don’t beat yourself up,” Reina advises. Take what you can learn from the experience, integrate it and then leave the painful residue behind.
That worked for Gillette Cleveland. Thirteen years and several jobs later, she’s still mindful of her assistant’s advice. “I think the humility I’ve developed as the result of that has made me a better leader. Now I spearhead projects that couldn’t get done without me, but they also couldn’t get done without my team.”
How To Handle Criticism
When you’re on the receiving end of criticism, it’s often easy to get defensive and turn away. Instead, try a few simple techniques to help you listen and learn.
1. Breathe Resist the urge to fight back with a litany of reasons your criticizer is wrong – or to start blaming yourself about all the places he or she is right.
2. Realize that you’re not perfect. If you made a mistake or didn’t perform up to par, react to constructive criticism with curiosity and open-mindedness – not shame.
3. Listen for the deeper message. If what you’re hearing makes you feel defensive, ask yourself if the feedback is intended to be helpful or hurtful. In either case, ask yourself honestly if there is a nugget of truth to what is being said.
4. Reframe the criticism. Don’t get lost in the emotions of the exchange. Listen to what is really being said, not just the way it is being delivered.
5. Take Action. Ask questions to clarify exactly what your criticizer would like to see happen. Then look for an opportunity to create a win-win agreement. If someone is rightfully angry because you failed to follow through on an agreement, ask for a “redo.” Then make sure you get it right the next time.
Acknowledging that we have something to learn can be downright painful. This is particularly true at work, where many of us pride ourselves in our competence and professional mastery.
“For many of us, our jobs are our identities, and it can be difficult to separate what’s being said about us from who we actually are as a person,” says Dennis Reina, coauthor of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization (Berrett-Koehler, 1999).
Putting yourself in a questioning mindset is particularly important for formal performance reviews. In fact, it’s wise to prepare for professional reviews by asking yourself, honestly, what kinds of criticisms or suggestions you’re most likely to hear. According to Barbara Hoese, the president of The Inventure Group, a Minneapolis-based workplace consulting firm with Fortune 500 clients, healthy workplaces create systems where employees are keenly aware of the issues to be addressed in a review before it happens.
“When people get defensive, it’s usually because they are surprised by what they are being told,” Hoese asserts. You can minimize such surprises by doing a self-review — not just of your performance results since your last review, but also of your workplace attitudes, and your ability to manage relationships with others.
Keep in mind that you’re not trying to rip yourself apart at the seams, but nor are you trying to build a case for your infallibility. Rather, you’re attempting to learn how you can advance in your job. Being able to pinpoint your own areas of strengths and weaknesses ahead of time will not only tell your supervisor that you’re committed to continuous improvement, it also increases the likelihood that you’ll get any additional training or support you might need to achieve your ultimate career goals.