How to handle criticism


Remember that old Allman Brothers’ song “Whipping Post,” which vividly described the whipped feeling that is commonly generated by life’s trials? Sadly, the song reminds me of the emotional pain commonly caused by verbal floggings from managers, colleagues and others.

Nevertheless, by using self-control, tact and thought, you can minimize the pain, speed your recovery and even glean some helpful advice from professional criticism.

Some tips:

• Don’t take criticism personally. No matter how tactlessly or viciously criticism is delivered, it’s really about something you may or may not have done — not about who you are or what you’re worth.

Plus, no one has the judgment or right to pass a referendum on your personal worth. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

• Evaluate your interpretation of events. Then, evaluate whether the criticism was justified, no matter how tough it may be to admit fault.

• Clean up and quickly move on. After receiving warranted criticism or suggestions, immediately focus on the future and how you will do better next time. Apologize to your critic for any transgressions you made, and acknowledge to him the worthiness of his points; if necessary, ask for clarification of future expectations, and explain how you will meet them.

Then, the next time that you follow your critic’s suggestions, tell him that you’ve fixed the error of your ways by saying something like, “I took your helpful advice on X, and it produced Y results.”

• Don’t apologize needlessly. Answer unwarranted criticism by saying something like, “I’m sorry that this happened and that you feel that way,” and then express openness to new approaches. But don’t admit guilt for wrongs that you didn’t commit.

• Craft your response. When faced with unwarranted criticism, write a logical, concise explanation of the situation and why the associated criticism was wrong. If possible, bolster your defense with objective evidence, such as supporting e-mails, phone messages, transcripts of supporting statements from other involved colleagues, timelines, copies of relevant regulations and documents. Omit statements about how you’ve been victimized. Once you finish your defense, review it and evaluate whether you really want your critic to hear it.

If so, role-play your defense with trusted advisers. Practice presenting it, along with supporting evidence, until your delivery is calm, smooth, logical and confident. Also, anticipate your critic’s potential responses to it and practice rebutting them.

• Temper the tone. There is no place for yelling at work. And you’re under no obligation — no matter how bad your mistakes may be — to be yelled at or verbally abused. If your critic bullies you, unemotionally and decisively say something like, “I think our discussion about X would be more productive if we would take a time out now and talk later when it would be calmer.” Refrain from getting emotional or defensive. Speak to your critic as tactfully and respectfully as you would if he were complimenting you. Stick with the facts — don’t use emotional or confrontational language. If possible, use humor to defuse tension. Also, let your critic finish his argument without interrupting him, no matter how wrong it may be. And then deliver your rebuttal.

If your critic interrupts you, calmly say, “I let you finish. Now, please let me finish.” By maintaining your dignity and lowering your discussion’s decibel level, you maintain the moral high ground — which will hold you in good stead if your dispute is ratcheted up to higher authorities. You will also increase your chances of being heard — literally and figuratively.

• Document. If your boss rebuffs or ignores your response to unwarranted criticism, submit your response to him in writing, and write down and date everything that was said, written and done by everyone involved in the situation. Keep this documentation to support any formal actions you may be compelled to pursue in the future.

• Seek second opinions. If you’re unsure whether criticism is warranted, explain your situation objectively and accurately to trusted, free-thinking advisers. If they side with your critics, reconsider your position. But if they side with you, discuss potential follow-up strategies with them.


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1 Comment

  1. Former Whipping Girl on

    Lily, you note very civilized methods of handling criticism but you cannot apply them to a military-dominated workplace. In the last few years of my career, I had the most brutal, female-hating military supervisors on the planet. They actually drove me into the hospital because of their harassment. I’m retired but I’m being treated for Major Depressive Disorder and have spent thousands of dollars on getting well. My point is that one cannot reason with a military supervisor. It’s their way or the highway, and God help you if you don’t salute smartly and get with the program.

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