How To

How to respond to (and learn from) constructive criticism

Whoever said feedback was a gift never experienced the racing heartbeat, hurt feelings, and sense of embarrassment that comes with a cryptic, “we should talk.”

If you struggle to deal with feedback gracefully, know that you’re far from alone. None of us like to have our flaws pointed out, but the fact is, others can provide some valuable perspectives on our shortcomings.

Being sensitive to criticism can hold you back. Avoiding confrontation can damage relationships with colleagues and stand in the way of professional growth.

How to handle criticism


What is constructive criticism vs. just plain criticism?

Criticism is a term that refers to an evaluation or judgement — and it could be good or bad.

Constructive criticism is used to help people grow and improve. It’s thoughtful feedback that presents some form of actionable advice.

By contrast, criticism is not constructive if the main point made is “you suck” with no feedback on why that is and how to improve.

Naturally, if you’re dealing with negativity at work in the form of personal attacks, it’s best to shut it down, ignore it, or report your problem to HR or your boss.

Controlling your reaction

If you’ve ever tried to hide your feelings, you know that it’s not easy. Try not to take things personally.

Do not blurt out the first reaction that comes after hearing something critical. Take a breath and process what’s going on here. That initial impulse to be defensive is not going to serve you well.

Right off the bat, your first instinct might be to explain your actions or shut down the conversation.

In this initial moment, take a few seconds to remind yourself that feedback is a powerful tool. This is a chance to improve your skills, better your relationships, and get on the same page with the person giving the feedback.

That less-than-stellar performance review doesn’t reflect on your personality. Instead, it’s an opportunity to learn about your weaknesses.

On the spot, controlling your feelings is a bit more difficult. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider asking the person giving the feedback if they have time to chat about it later.

This will allow you to take a walk, listen to music, and calm down a bit. You may also want to write down your stresses, and reflect.

Listen closely

negative review

When it comes time to have that hard conversation, approach the situation with an open mind. If a colleague says you were too aggressive in a meeting, consider how your actions made them feel — what did you say or do that rubbed them the wrong way? Do you get excited about sharing your own ideas and cut others’ off mid-sentence? Maybe you’ve been inadvertently dismissive.

Whether you agree or not, your critic might have a point. We have to exist in this world with others, and it makes things easier when we bring up the things we don’t like.

If you can see things from the other person’s point of view, you can better understand why they brought this issue up. So, if you’re blowing past deadlines you don’t consider important, your boss might call you out on your time management skills. Or, assume you don’t take your job seriously. You might think these deadlines are arbitrary, or an extra step.

Let them go over how your actions impact their ability to finish their work. Your boss might say that you need to turn a client proposal early because it allows them to review milestones and assign tasks to others. Then, it’s understandable that operating on your own timeframe can cause your boss to stress.

The point is, when we understand why something is important to someone else, it can inform how we set our priorities.

Ask questions

You might find yourself in a situation where you receive vague feedback that doesn’t seem to have a clear solution attached.

Often, the person tasked with giving the feedback isn’t stoked about the situation, either. Your manager might not be comfortable with this aspect of their role, and instead, try to deliver news as gently as possible.

In this case, ask questions and get specifics. Sure, it’s counterintuitive to stay in this moment for longer than necessary, but the more details you can dig up, the better.

Ask questions like “do you have any suggestions for how I can improve?” “What would you add or change about X?”

When you make a point of asking for advice, you show that you’re flexible and willing to learn, even when it’s hard.

Responding the right way


Responding is the hardest part for a lot of us.

For one, even the most productive forms of criticism can leave us feeling hurt, humiliated, or downright defensive. And, if you’re prone to tears, then your focus may be on trying to make it out of a situation without crying in front of a boss or colleague.

If you don’t agree with the criticism, take a deep breath and say something like, “from my end, it seems like XX…”. Or, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I came across that way, __ is what I really meant.” This gives you a chance to explain your decisions and emphasize the subjective nature of our work and interactions with others.

If the critic has some valid points, try to respond positively. Set aside your ego and make it clear that you hear what they’re saying, and that you’ll use that feedback in the future.

Focus on being solutions-based

Building on the importance of responding to feedback gracefully, talking about your feelings too much misses the point.

Instead, come up with a game plan for enacting change. Are there tools you can use to become a better time manager? Do you need to work on being a better listener? Responding to emails faster? Whatever it is, come up with some steps for improvement.

That said if someone is being cruel or calling you out in front of a group of colleagues, that crosses a line. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “hey, next time can you bring this up in private?” Or, “I’d rather not have you CC the whole team about this issue.”

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