There are two places where you’re likely to experience criticism: first, in a room with someone who is criticizing you; second, in your mind after the criticism takes place, maybe over and over for an extended period of time.
“I need to talk with you,” it could begin. “Some of your coworkers have spoken to me about your work style. Sounds like you have trouble following our protocols.”
Maybe your stomach started hurting as soon as the words “I need to talk to you” made it to your brain. Maybe the thought of your coworkers complaining about you feels like a betrayal, or perhaps it sparked some complaints about a colleague that you’ve been thinking about for a while — along with resentment, because you never went and tattled to your boss. Maybe you want to jump in and explain what’s wrong with those protocols.
If this sounds familiar, then you probably know that doing what comes naturally at this point won’t lead to the results you want.
Here’s how to take criticism well the first time, when it’s being said aloud:
- Don’t be defensive. You don’t have to defend yourself. Even if you feel that the criticism is completely undeserved, a quick defensive response is unlikely to do you any good. Hear the criticism out.
- Make sure you understand. Saying, “Are you saying that my coworkers find me difficult to work with?” for example, gives you the chance to make sure you understand, and gives your boss a chance to clarify the problem. You might get the response, “No one’s saying you’re personally difficult, but when you don’t follow procedures, it can make more work for others.”
- Apologize, if that’s appropriate. If you need to apologize, keep it simple. Say, “I’m sorry; it won’t happen again” or “I’m sorry; thanks for letting me know.” Remember that sentences like, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry, but—” followed by an excuse aren’t really apologies. In our example, there might be more than one person you should apologize to. Keep it simple and get it done quickly to limit the amount of time you’ll be uncomfortable about it.
- Give yourself time. If your response to what you hear is emotional and you’re not sure you’ll be able to respond in a useful way, you should feel free to ask for some time to think about what you’ve heard an then come back to discuss it further. If there are factual errors in the criticism or you need to come up with a plan to fix the problem, this can also give you time to get your facts in order.
When the episode is over and you have time to think, don’t waste the opportunity by wallowing in remorse or embarrassment.
- Don’t let the criticism take over. Sometimes criticism is very hurtful, and sometimes it just makes you feel less loved or less confident. Either way, recognize that this criticism is not the definition of your entire self and life. Acknowledge your feelings and move on as soon as you can.
- Learn what you can. Constructive criticism can help you improve your life and your relationships with others. If there’s a grain of truth in the criticism, decide how you will change in response to it. Maybe, to continue our example, you could adjust your workflow to respect the procedures of others, now that you know your attitude is affecting your coworkers. Or you might want to renegotiate the situation and make sure that your viewpoint is understood.
However you decide to respond to the criticism — by changing, by disagreeing, or by apologizing and moving on — try to get the most benefit from the experience and the least negativity. If you react by burning bridges, by sinking into depression, or by turning to destructive behavior, you haven’t won. Instead, you’ve given someone else the power to make your life worse.
Give yourself the power to make your life better.