Criticism Reframed

Hearing criticism in a way that can help you to learn and grow can be tough. Criticism can cause us to tense up and get defensive if not delivered properly, which means we can’t learn from it. In my coach training program I learned how to connect with someone and give what might be tough feedback in a way that will be useful to them. But not everyone knows how to deliver feedback in this way. Properly delivered criticism can be very valuable to self awareness and personal growth, but our colleagues aren’t perfect and they may not always deliver criticism in a useful way. Here are some strategies for handling (and learning from) improperly delivered criticism.

Criticism & Feedback

Photo by Daniel Lobo. Used under Creative Commons License

Hearing Criticism: Don Your Armor

One helpful rubric for learning from criticism which may not be delivered in the easiest way to hear is to disengage from the comments. What I mean by this is to almost pretend the speaker is talking about someone else so you can listen for the content that might be helpful. One way to think of this is to think about putting on your armor, or your thick skin. Brace yourself.  I used to cringe every time I read my course evaluations. Now I still have to steady myself to read them but I do value what they say. They help me to be a better instructor. By consciously protecting my emotions–either by putting them aside or imagining they are inside my “armor” I am much better able to learn and grown from the comments I receive.

Hearing Criticism: Focus on the Content

I recently read an article from Inc about how emotionally intelligent people handle criticism. It suggests focusing on the content. Instead of focusing on a delivery that might be rude, abrupt or otherwise offensive, think about how you can use the information to learn, grow and  improve. Is there some element of truth there?

Hearing Criticism: Reframe the Feedback

Properly delivered feedback is very useful for self-improvement. When feedback isn’t delivered in a way that’s easy to digest, another strategy  is to reframe it so that it is closer to the desired method of delivering criticism in a useful way.

  1. Feedback should be given in a safe, private area.  If someone is beginning to share feedback with you and you are not comfortable with the location, invite them to move to another area. Say, “I’m happy to discuss this with you but I would be more comfortable if we found a more private area. Let’s see if the conference room is available.”
  2. To be most “digestible,” there should be a ratio of 2/3 positive feedback to 1/3 negative feedback. If you are just hearing negative feedback it will be up to you to mentally insert some positive feedback. You know what you do well. Be sure to remind yourself.
  3. Criticism can sometimes feel like a personal attack, even if it is not intended this way. Actively remind yourself that it’s not personal. See if you can gently remind the criticizer to focus on the issue rather than the person.  If they say, “You are X,” reply by saying, “I appreciate you coming to me with this. So that I can better understand and improve the situation, could you tell me what it is you are observing that makes you think I am X?” This has the added benefit of providing you with more detail on the potential growth area.

Hearing Criticism: What if You Still Take It Too Personally

Criticism or negative feedback isn’t meant to be personal. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a good person or fun to spend time with or a a good parent. But sometimes it can really rock your world…personally. So how do you handle this? Affirmations can help. If you tell yourself before you receive feedback, “this is feedback on my job performance,” or “this is one person’s opinion on how I conducted x project,” it can be a lot easier to hear the helpful parts. If you tell yourself daily that you are a good person trying your best then you will come to believe it, and negative feedback won’t be so difficult to handle.

Hearing Criticism: When does it stop being feedback?

In this post I’m not talking about criticism that is intentionally over-harsh, nitpick or continual.  Feedback is designed to help you learn and improve.  Nagging or bullying isn’t feedback. If you think you might be in a situation where someone is being over-critical,  your organization’s human resources department, staff assistance program or ombudsperson can be helpful.

Have you been successful in learning from criticism? How have you separated useful criticism from poor delivery? I’d love to hear your experiences. 



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