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How To Accept Criticism

16 June, 2008

I love to read Zen Habits and I was a little daunted when I saw that Leo has written on the same topic. While I may not address it as well as he has, I can address it from my own experience.

Criticism is never pleasant. Everyone would like to believe that they are a capable person who is good at what they choose to do. However, criticism is a natural and normal part of life.

The first step to accepting criticism is to not react. Or, more to the point, keep your reactions to yourself. If necessary say “I’ll need to think about that before I can respond”, or words to that effect, and walk away. Wait at least an hour, maybe even days, before responding to a criticism in written form. Give yourself a chance to move past the initial shock and sting of the criticism and think clearly about it before you respond.

When you have calmed down a bit, have a think about the criticism.

Firstly, ask yourself if it is worth worrying about. While most criticism in life is worth taking beyond this first step, a rude comment from a crotchety old man in a supermarket or an anonymous defamatory comment on your blog is probably not worth worrying about.

If the criticism has passed the first test, it’s time to ask the next question. Next you need to think about if the criticism is specific. It can be difficult to decide if “You’re a mean person” is a valid criticism if you don’t think you’re at all mean. If the criticism is not specific, then it may be a good idea to go back to the person who criticised you to ask them what they meant by their criticism and perhaps give some examples of your actions that are drawing this criticism. “You often appear distracted when I am talking to you and I find it disconcerting. I would prefer it if you turned away from the computer when I am speaking to you” is a much more specific criticism and therefore much easier to respond to.

Once you have a clear picture of what behaviour is drawing criticism you can then begin to think about whether it is a valid criticism. Even the specific second criticism may not be valid if the purpose of the other person talking to you is for you to transcribe what they are saying.

Some criticism can be levelled in absolutes, and absolutes can cause us to be quite defensive. “You never remember to call anyone on their birthdays” is likely to have you thinking of all the times you have remembered. However, it is necessary to get to the core of the criticism to assess its validity. You could then reword the criticism in a more helpful way “You often forget to call people on their birthdays”. Now it is much easier to consider if it is valid.

Whether or not you decide the criticism was valid, thank the person who criticised you. It will catch them off-guard and defuse any potential anger or aggression. It will allow you an opportunity to be gracious. Criticism can help us grow, and even if we decide that our behaviour is justified and the criticism is unfair, we have been given an opportunity to analyse our behaviours and consider if we are behaving in the right manner.

The final step is to make changes if appropriate. If it is an ingrained behaviour, it may take time to change. However repetition and sometimes “fake it til you make it” are needed in the meantime.

And next time you need to pass on some constructive criticism, think about how you could make it a helpful experience for the receiver.

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