When I asked my client Braden how his relationship with his manager was going since we’d last spoken, there was a long pause.
“Braden, what happened?” I asked.
“He ripped apart a presentation I put together,” he told me, detailing an intense round of criticism. “He said I needed to start over from scratch because it totally missed the mark. I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation all weekend!”
How criticism affects us
Maybe you’ve found yourself in Braden’s shoes, feeling angry, insecure, or demoralized after getting bad feedback. When someone criticizes your work, it can feel like a confirmation of your inner critic saying you’re not good enough. Other times, a single off-handed comment (“you look tired”) launches you into an existential crisis about how you’re too old and have accomplished nothing with your life.
But if you want to do anything important in the world, you’ll inevitably get negative feedback. Why not learn to get better at it? Besides, mastering the art of responding to criticism like a pro is linked to higher job satisfaction and is the cornerstone of building trust in any relationship.
Here’s a short guide on how to respond positively to negative feedback, find the good in it, and fortify your confidence as a result:
First, thank them. Seriously.
After criticism, you may be tempted to lash out and give that person a piece of your mind. (It’s a completely natural feeling!)
But before you say something you’ll regret, pause. Don’t panic. Practice this technique to manage your emotional reaction. Then, buy yourself time to calm down and gain distance from the comments by saying something like “Thanks, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts” or “I’ll need a moment to digest that.”
By doing so, you use your empathy skills to achieve two things: (1) you make the person feel heard and validated and (2) you gain control of your emotional response so that you respond respectfully.
Find the lesson
After you’ve given yourself some space to process what’s been said, you’re ready to evaluate the feedback objectively.
Keep in mind that criticism is a reflection of one person’s opinions and beliefs, including their fears. For example, your family may be critical of your career choices when in fact they’re just worried about you. Do your best to de-personalize their comments and assume positive intent.
Find a growth opportunity within the criticism by asking for specific examples about where you could improve or what you could do differently next time.
Go on the offense
Instead of shuddering away from feedback except at performance review time or when you have a fight, solicit it proactively.
This process, called desensitization, involves gradually exposing yourself to scary situations until the anxiety dissipates. The more comfortable you get having difficult conversations, the easier they become (and the more your confidence grows as a result).
Look for low-stakes opportunities to show your work to new people, setting up regular one-on-ones with your boss, or even creating a weekly date night so you can have important conversations with your partner. In Braden’s case, he stopped fearing his boss’ criticism by getting his input on presentations earlier and more often.
You won’t please everyone all the time and negative feedback is a natural consequence of going for your goals. Remember, though, that at the end of the day the opinion that matters the most is the one you hold of yourself.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.
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