How to deal with criticism

Dealing with negative feedback or criticism is one of the toughest challenges for people in the work place and rarely have I seen people that can handle it well. Most people get defensive, some get angry or discouraged and very few are grateful for the feedback they just received. So here are some things I do, to deal with criticism effectively.

Evaluate if you should listen to the feedback

This is critical. There are a lot of situations when feedback is not really helpful. In my evaluation I consider the following things:

  • Is the person giving the feedback really qualified in the domain?
  • If the person is not qualified, is there still something to win (like a deeper understanding of the other person’s thinking or a better relationship with the other person)?
  • Is it necessary to listen to the feedback for political reasons?
  • Will it lead to an insightful conversation even if the feedback is wrong?

If the answer to one of the questions is yes, then the following steps apply. If I can answer all of the questions with a no, then I will say thank you for the feedback but will not engage in a longer conversation about the topic.

Own your emotions

After I have decided to go deeper, the first thing I do is to remind myself that I’m not perfect and that it is highly probable that I’ve made a mistake. A lot of times the difficulties with taking criticism come from the hidden and ridiculous assumption of being flawless.

There’s a mind hack to achieve inner confidence while being criticized: I don’t identify with the person being criticized – the current version of myself. Instead I identify with the being that refines this current version of me on an ongoing basis. I tell myself: “Ok it’s just the release 4.56.124 of me that’s being criticized. I knew it had some known issues. But the next two releases already are in the pipeline. There will be some major patches. No problem. Maybe I will include this one in the next release.”

The last thing I do is to remind me that there might be several reasons the other person is criticizing me. Maybe (s)he’s right. Maybe the person is in a bad mood. Maybe (s)he was not very careful when (s)he made up his/her mind. I simply don’t know yet.

Build rapport

In order to have a productive feedback conversation I try to build rapport with the person. I try to have a friendly facial expression, I make eye contact and sit or stand with a welcoming and open posture.

Understand the feedback

The next step is to understand the other person. I usually don’t answer immediately to the feedback. I resist the temptation to explain or defend myself. Instead I ask open questions to understand the viewpoint of the other person better. What did the other person want from me instead? What was his/her expectation of me? What would (s)he like me to do differently? What would (s)he have done in my situation?

When I have some understanding I also make assumptions and try to validate them:

  • “Would you like me to call you first, before I make such a decision?”
  • “Did you feel overwhelmed by my e-mail?”

There are two different risks here:

  • The other person might interpret your questions as sarcastic or manipulative. So be sensitive to the other person’s reactions. Start with the assumption part earlier if you have the feeling (s)he is annoyed by your questions.
  • If the feedback is not well informed and the other person is not able or willing to reflect, (s)he might feel the need to defend his/her feedback. Stop the conversation if you are not gaining new relevant information or you are drifting away from the original topic.

Show understanding

When I developed sufficient understanding, I show it to the other person. And even if I don’t agree, I still try to at least understand his/her point of view. A good technique is “paraphrasing”: Summarizing the other persons view in my own words and asking for approval.

Deal with the feedback

Now I have to make a decision. Shall I take, refine or reject the feedback. And all three are totally valid options, depending on the situation.

Refine the feedback

There are those cases when the other person made up his/her mind too quickly and left important aspects out. Maybe the other person did not have all the information and maybe this was even his/her fault.

In such cases I ask the person if (s)he is interested in additional information about why I did as I did. If the answer is yes, only then I explain myself. By the way: Usually the answer is yes.

But be careful with this: Anticipate if the other person will find that information relevant. If not you are just being defensive again. And a lot of times the other person will not find it relevant.

However, If (s)he finds it relevant, I ask if this would change his/her point of view. This might lead to a further discussion and eventually I either take or reject the feedback.

Take the feedback

If I can agree on the viewpoint of the other person and I’m able and willing to change my behavior I simply say thank you and show appreciation for the feedback which allowed me to grow.

Usually I do not agree with all of the feedback, but it’s still sufficient if some of the feedback is valuable.

Reject the feedback

There are several reasons when I reject feedback:

  • When the feedback is so uninformed that it would be too difficult to sort it all out.
  • When after all the effort of understanding the other person’s viewpoint, I still cannot find a common ground.
  • When the feedback is based on a different value system and I’m not willing to sacrifice those values.
  • When the feedback is valid but I see no way or have no resources to integrate it into my behavior.

Even when I reject I show appreciation and try to explain why I reject the feedback in a polite way.


This algorithm has helped me in a lot of situations and I can really recommend it. Even when I reject the feedback I very often have the feeling that the other person understands why I reject it. The most difficult part is to not get defensive and take the time to really understand what the feedback is all about. I hardly leave a feedback situation with the feeling that it went badly.

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