How to Handle Criticism with Honesty and Grace
Perhaps one of the most vulnerable of moments is when someone criticizes you. If the person who criticizes you knows you well, and if she makes their comments in front of other people, she can cut deep. The scalpel of her comments can be surgically rapid and close to the bone, more damaging than the rubber hammer of a stranger’s passing slight. Yet, as the old saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us can make us stronger.”
Notice How People Show You Their “Operating Manual”
People are most revealing when offering praise or criticism. Praise indicates what they most like about themselves, and criticism often shows what they least like or feel least competent about in themselves, which means criticism is actually a two-way mirror. How can you respond to another’s criticism with honesty and grace and actually gain new insights about yourself and the other person in the process?
First Recognize that You Are an Animal Under Attack
Whether you are with someone you love, hate, or just met, when you first realize you are being criticized, you react the same. Your heart beats faster, your skin temperature goes down, and you even lose peripheral vision. Because you feel under attack, your first instincts are to focus on that feeling, making it more intense. You then feel like withdrawing or retaliating. Just remember that with either instinctual response, you are saying, “I don’t like your comments; therefore, I will give you more power.”
Do Not Let Somebody Else Determine Your Behavior
Both fight and flight responses leave you with fewer options — not more — so attempt to do neither. When you focus on your feelings, you are distracted from hearing the content of the other person’s comments, leaving you more likely to react rather than choosing how you want to act. Avoid a “face-off” of escalation of comments between the two of you.
Instead, imagine a triangle of three entities: the other person, you, and the topic of the criticism. Picture the two of you staring at the criticism, the third point in the triangle, to work through the comments, rather than staring each other down, where one person has to be wrong.
Look to Their Positive Intent, Especially When They Appear to Have None
You are your most disarming when you compliment someone else for taking the time to give you feedback. You take the wind out of their sails. The other person might even backtrack. Yet our first instincts are to look for the ways we are right and others are… less right. In responding to criticism, the momentum of defensive emotions builds fast.
Praise What You Want to Flourish
Why? Because we mentally focus on the smart, thoughtful, and “right” things we are doing, while obsessing about the dumb, thoughtless, and otherwise wrong things the other person is doing, leading us to take a superior or righteous position, get more rigid, and listen less as the criticism continues. Difficult as you might find it, try staying mindful of your worst side and the other person’s best side as you engage in responding to the criticism.
Bring Out Their Best Side to Display Yours
You will probably be more generous and patient, thus increasing the chances he will see areas where you might be right after all. Act as if he means well, especially if he appears not to — not for his sake, but for yours. The more you can look to someone else’s positive intent, the greater the likelihood you can respond to her comments before she adds more or elaborates.
Follow this easy-to-remember four-step process when responding to criticism. Remember, it is never comfortable to hear negative comments, yet with this approach, you’ll increase your ease in the moment:
“AAAA” Approach to Responding to Criticism
Step One: Acknowledge Their Need or Interest
Acknowledge that you heard the person — with a pause (buys time for both of you to cool off), a nod, or a verbal acknowledgment demonstrating you heard. Whether the criticism is justified or not, an attempt to avoid discussing it will loom large in the minds of bystanders and stick to you like flypaper as you attempt to move on. Do not disagree or counterattack.
Prove you have heard the person’s comment perhaps by saying, “I understand you have a concern” rather than “You shouldn’t have…” Avoid blaming or “bad-labeling” language such as “That’s a lie” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about” which only pours hot coals on the heat of escalation and hardens the person into a position with an urge to elaborate.
Step Two: Ask for More About it
Ask for more information so you both can cool off more and stay focused on the issue, not the feelings or personalities. Go slow to go faster later in reaching agreement about how to resolve the criticism. Try to warm up to the part of the person you can respect.
Focus on the positive part of her mentally, and refer to it verbally: “You are so dedicated” or “knowledgeable” or whatever self-image leads her to criticize you. The more fully the other person feels heard, the more likely she will be receptive to your response, whether to agree or disagree.
Step Three: Align With Where You Agree
Align with something the other person has said with which you agree. That is, first speak to the common ground you feel is not in dispute. There may be only one, apparently small point, but starting with the positive creates some momentum forward.
If, in listening, you can find no point of agreement, refer to the part of the person’s positive self-image that might have inspired him to raise his concerns. For example, you might say, “ I understand you want to be very thorough in how you approach these matters” or “I know that you really care about this project…”
Step Four: Add Your Own
Add your own point of view, asking permission first. If you believe the other’s comments are accurate, say so. If an apology is in order, give it sooner rather than later. Then say what you plan to do differently to respond to the criticism. Ask for the person’s response to your comments and again say thanks for being thoughtful in offering them. If you find truth in the criticism, the sooner you verbally agree, the more likely you will engender respect from the other person and any others who witness the interaction. In fact, if you tell others who are important to that person that you were wrong and appreciate having it pointed it out to you, you will feel and appear more comfortable with yourself. If, on the other hand, you disagree with the comments, say “May I tell you my perspective?” This sets the other person up to give you permission to state your view, as you have been willing to listen to his.
Here are some other ways to respond to criticism:
Dump Their Stuff Back in Their Laps
If someone is verbally dumping on you, do not interrupt, counter, or counterattack in midstream, which only prolongs and intensifies her comments. When the person has finished, ask, “Is there anything else you want to add?”
Ask the Person Who Raised an Issue Suggest How to Solve It
Then say, “What would make this situation better for us?” or “How can we improve this situation in a way you believe we can both accept?” What Will Make it Better? Ask the person to propose a solution to the issue being raised. If he continues to complain or attack, acknowledge you heard him each time and, like a broken record, repeat yourself in increasingly brief language variations: “What will make it better?” State your view and what you would like from him. If he disagrees, ask, “What would make this situation better for both of us?”
Move the other person from a mode of criticizing to one of problem-solving. If he continues to criticize, again act like a broken record. In a calm voice, acknowledge and then ask more briefly, “I understand you have a concern, and we disagree. What would make it better for us both?” If the other person continues on the downward track of criticism, say, “I want to find a way to resolve your concern. When do you want to talk about it next?” In this way, you can remove yourself from the tone of that discussion and put the other person in the position of initiating follow-up.
What if you believe another person is actually lying to you? “Naive you are if you believe life favors those who aren’t naive,” Mason Williams once said. Nobody wants to be told they are wrong. Whenever you have reason to believe someone is lying or not making sense, you will not build rapport by pointing it out to them.
Enable Others To Self-Correct to Save Face
Allow the person to save face by asking questions until you lose imagination or control. Say, for example, “How does that relate to…” (then state the apparently conflicting information). You might find you were wrong, and thus you save face. Or, by your continued nonthreatening questions, you can “softly corner” the other person into self-correcting and protect your future relationship.
Learn How Personalities Clash
To gain insights into the kinds of people most likely to criticize you and those you are most likely to criticize, learn more about your personality type according to the classic Myers-Briggs process. Even if you have taken the test in the past, you can take a quick, free refresher course on the Internet.
Demonstrate Visible Good Will Up Front
When criticized, you are more likely to find resolutions sooner if the other person comes to trust your positive intent. Demonstrate your willingness to find a compromise and your ability to be genial, even — and especially — if you don’t like the person or the situation. Often the best solution to a criticism leaves both parties a little unhappy, but not enough to retaliate later on. You are both somewhat satisfied with your compromise and willing to move on.
Know that “Less is Often More” especially in the beginning, listen more, talk and move less, and keep your motions and voice lower and slower. These animal behaviors increase the chances others will feel more safe and comfortable around you.
Again Act to Enable Them to Save Face, Preserve the Relationship
If you think someone is lying, keep asking questions (until you lose control or run out of imagination) rather than accusing them of misrepresentation. Asking questions gives you time to see if you were mistaken, thus possibly saving face for yourself, while gently cornering them to make a self-admission that they were mistaken and volunteer an alternative.
You also leave room to escalate later. Honor commonalities more frequently than bringing up the differences. Whatever you refer to most and most intensely will be the center of your relationship. Keep referring to the part of them and their points that you can support and want to expand upon.
Let Them See It Differently
If the other person does not accept your response at first, consider making the same suggestion later on and in a different way. Do not overlook rearranging elements of the same suggestion or offering to find a more mutually attractive compromise.