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  • August 5, 2014
  • PropellHer
  • Careers

How to deal with criticism

“Learn how to take criticism seriously, but not personally” – Hillary Clinton.

Coming up as a journalist, it’s fair to say I experienced a fair bit of criticism now and then. From an angry interviewee unhappy with the angle I’d taken on a story, to a frustrated subeditor displeased with my use of syntax, I am certainly no stranger to a harsh critique.

Once, while working as a lowly editorial assistant, a critical editor actually hurled a paperweight. At my head.

Clearly, that moves beyond the realm of acceptable workplace behaviour and if it happened today, I’d sue. But being fresh out of university, grateful for a job and eager to please, I just dodged the paperweight (luckily) and apologised for ‘being useless’ (his words, not mine). I then trudged back to my cubicle, desperately clinging to the few scraps of dignity I had left.

Later in my career, I found my backbone but became extremely aggressive. Colleagues have diplomatically told me I was ‘passionate’ and ‘had pepper’. But today after benefiting from much self-reflection I can concede that I was really just a pain in the butt. I was also deeply unhappy. Consistently responding to criticism in an aggressive way is a sure fire way to maintain low self-esteem and is a major barrier to forming any deep relationships. Also, it’s clearly not an appropriate way to conduct oneself in a professional environment.

Criticism can take many forms. It can be bullying, like in my first example, or constant nagging over your alleged failings. Or, it could be constructive criticism, delivered by someone who wants to help and is expressing their criticism as supportive suggestions for change. This form of criticism may come from a manager or superior in the form of feedback or advice. However, no matter what form criticism comes in, it generally shares one trait – It’s not wanted. Negative opinions from others have the potential to send your self-esteem plummeting, because they can activate your own negative self-talk. So, how do you maintain your self-esteem when it seems everyone’s a critic?

The answer can be found in a wonderful book by Matthew McKay, PH.D and Patrick Fanning, appropriately titled ‘Self Esteem’.

The first tactic the authors describe to effectively respond to criticism involves saying two words that I know are going to stick in your throat like superglue: ‘You’re Right.’

Yes. You read that right. But trust me, by acknowledging or agreeing with the critic you will shut the criticism down straight away. The next step the authors suggest is to paraphrase the criticism, thank the critic (if appropriate) and explain …If appropriate. Dr McKay and Patrick Fanning stress than an explanation is not an apology and actually suggest that while working on your self-esteem, the best policy is to never say sorry and to rarely explain.

Here’s an example of the acknowledgement tactic for responding to criticism in action:Critic: “That document you just sent me was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Ever heard of spell check?”

You: “You’re right. I should take more care in checking my work before I send it to you. Thanks for the feedback.”

Acknowledging criticism has some clear advantages – Mainly the ability to quickly and effectively shut down criticism. But what happens when the criticism isn’t true? You don’t want to agree with inaccurate criticism, because secretly you’re telling yourself that what the critic is saying is true and that’s not going to help your self-esteem.

Dr McKay and Patrick Fanning recommend another tactic for when you don’t agree 100 percent with what your critic is saying: Clouding.

According to the authors, ‘Clouding’ involves agreeing in the part to the criticism you know is correct and leaving the rest.

Here is an example of what clouding could look like:

Critic: “You’re late again and we are heading into an important meeting this morning. You are so unreliable and useless. You’ll never get ahead in this industry with such an unprofessional attitude.”

You: “You’re right. I was late this morning. I’m sorry.”

In this example, the blanket statements ‘You’re unreliable and useless’ and ‘You’ll never get ahead in this industry’ are gross exaggerations. However, the fact that you were late is accurate, so it’s best to acknowledge that and move on.

A final technique for dealing with criticism is probing. Let’s face it, sometimes critics can be vague and it can be hard to know what they are getting at. By deploying the ‘probing’ method, you can find out more and decide how you want to respond. Dr McKay and Patrick Fanning recommend the key words ‘specifically’ and ‘exactly’ when using this technique.

An example of probing in action could be:

Critic: ‘You’re so lazy’.

You: ‘How do you mean?’

Critic: ‘You do nothing’.

You: ‘Can you say specifically what you’d like me to do?’

Critic: ‘Stop being lazy.’

You: ‘That’s not a concrete example. What actual things do you want me to do?’

According to the authors, this approach forces the critic away from nagging and complaining and towards offering some concrete suggestions or requests for you to consider.

Even the most delicately delivered criticism can be extremely hurtful. However, I hope the suggested tactics provided prove that it is possible to respond to criticism effectively and keep your self-esteem and dignity intact.

WORDS BY PENNY SMITS. Penny Smits is the Director of WordPlay Public Relations; a boutique PR consultancy specialising in helping non-profit and small business clients achieve their communication goals. A former print and radio journalist, Penny spends her spare time as a news trainer and occasional newsreader for Joy FM and a volunteer mentor.

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