How to Accept Criticism and Become an Awesome Person

by Tara Struyk on 19 March 2014 0 comments

I like to think I take criticism pretty well. Unless it comes from my husband. If he complains about my cooking, well, let's just say that we won't be sharing polite conversation over dinner. (See also: How to Stay Married for 20+ Years)

The truth is that criticism is very hard for just about anyone to deal with, never mind accept it gracefully or actually, you know, learn something from it. But despite my tendency to get my hackles up in the kitchen, I'm actually pretty good at accepting comments and criticisms in my professional life. In fact, for the most part, hearing the negative things people have to say about me has helped me get a lot better at what I do.

Want to learn to accept criticism better — or at all? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Run a Self-Esteem Check

A Sensitivity to Criticism Test conducted by PsychTests in 2013 found that people who tended to be most defensive in response to criticism tended to have the lowest self-esteem. That's the thing about criticism; even when it's constructive, it tends to hit us where it hurts.

Maybe you're already worrying that you aren't getting enough done at work. When you hear it from your boss, it confirms your worst fears about yourself, which can make it feel like you're being attacked — both from the outside and within. In many cases, however, criticism isn't offered as an attack, but as an opportunity to improve. So, instead of beating yourself up about what you're doing wrong, adjust your self image by looking at what you can do better. And be sure to congratulate yourself when you succeed. (See also: Learning From Your Mistakes)

Don't Overreact in the Moment

When it comes to taking criticism, I'm fortunate: I have a great poker face and a slow-burning temper. So, while I may not like the criticism I get, it's easy for me to avoid freaking out about it and saying something I'll regret later. (See also: How to Manage Powerful Emotions)

Being calm in the moment of delivery has also made it possible for me to notice a few things you might not see if you're, say, jumping up and down and yelling at whoever just criticized you. The first — and this is especially true in a professional setting — is that people tend to be pretty hesitant and afraid to deliver criticism. Maybe your boss needs to address some important issues with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings, or maybe your partner wants to bring up a problem without starting a big fight. The key thing to note here is that criticism is probably at least as hard to voice as it is to hear. Yes, some criticism is intended to be mean and nasty, but next time someone criticizes you, watch for the cues. If the criticism's fair and honest, they're probably having a hard time telling you what they think you need to hear. Looking at a critical comment that way can change the whole interaction from one of attack and defense, to one of two equals having a difficult conversation.

Say, "You're Right."

If you do react to criticism in the moment, consider doing something unexpected by thanking the person who gave it or telling them that they're right. I've done this. The shock on the person's face tends to be palpable. And again, it changes the whole conversation.

So, if we go back to the scenario where you're worrying about getting enough work done when your boss brings it up, why not say, "You know, you're right. I've been really worried about that too." That puts both of you on the same page, and allows you to discuss what can be done to help you do your work better. And that makes both you and your boss look (and feel) awesome. So everyone wins. In fact, the PsychTests survey found that those who tended to be most defensive about criticism were less happy at their jobs, had lower performance ratings, and may even have been less likely to advance. Go figure. (See also: 25 Ways to Communicate Better)

Think It Over

If you're getting annoyed because I've been siding with the critics, I hear you. Some criticism isn't constructive, useful, or even true. I've received comments and criticisms that I felt were unfounded. I've received criticisms that were just plain mean. I've even received emails from articles I've written in which I've been sexually harassed and personally denigrated. (Seriously, I had no idea people could get so worked up about things like savings accounts and interest rates.)

I think the key here is to avoid an immediate reaction to criticism so that you can take the time to cool off, decide whether the criticism has merit, and, if it doesn't, decide whether to address it with the person or let it go. Depending on the situation, either approach can work, as long as whatever you do doesn't deteriorate into you and your critic hurling insults and abuse at each other. (Hey, it happens, especially online.)

Know the Difference Between Constructive and Destructive Criticism

So, how can you decide whether criticism is something you should accept and consider working on or something you should toss aside? The first step is to understand that there are two types of criticism. The first is constructive criticism. This is criticism delivered in a friendly, helpful way with the intent of helping you to do something better. It goes something like this:

"Hey Tara, this article's OK, but I think you overlooked a key point in your argument."

When I hear criticism like that, I am given something to think about, something to work on, and something to respond to in an intelligent way.

Destructive criticism, on the other hand, looks like this:

"This article SUCKS!!!! You're arrogant and ugly and people hate you. Also, you're ugly."

Notice how one set of comments includes useful, insightful information about something I've done, while the other is just a personal attack? The key to accepting criticism well, using it to get better at things, and avoiding having it drive you crazy is to learn to accept one kind and ignore the other. Your success at work — and even in life — might depend on it.

Are You a More Awesome Person Yet? Am I?

Can learning to accept criticism help you become a more awesome person? It can't hurt, and it's a whole lot more pleasant than perpetually being on the defensive with others. That said, I could be wrong about that.

If you think so, feel free to send me an email or tell me so in the comments. Go ahead. I can take it. Just be nice about it, will ya?

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