The Art of Taking Criticism Effectively

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

No one really “likes” receiving criticism. No matter what kind of positive spin you put on its value, the truth is, it can make us feel badly to hear negative feedback, whether from peers or superiors.

Sometimes we take criticism to heart, letting it fester and affect our performance. But this isn’t necessary. Whether criticism is given constructively or not, it can help advance your career if you know how to use it right.

“It’s important to listen to all criticism without becoming defensive, argumentative, or angry,” says Kathi Elster, co-author of Mean Girls at Work. “There is always something to learn when hearing criticism.”

To understand how to accept office criticism with grace rather than a grimace, we spoke with national corporate etiquette expert Diane Gottsman.

Arrive Prepared

You can often anticipate potential criticism, such as at an evaluation meeting or review. In these cases, it’s best to think in advance about specific feedback that you might be offered, and come prepared to address it. It can help to bring along a list of positive contributions you’ve made to move your department or company forward.

“Reflect back and take an objective look at your past and current performance,” suggests Gottsman. “Have you made mistakes that have affected the company’s bottom line? Do you have a habit of arriving late or missing deadlines? If so, have a well thought-out action plan that you have taken (or will take immediately) to remedy your behavior.”

Watch Your Body Language

When offered criticism that is meant to be constructive, Gottsman recommends assuming a neutral posture rather than a confrontational one: “Keep your arms on the table, in your lap, or a combination of both. Maintain eye contact, and be aware of your shifting weight. Avoid crossing your arms, tightening your fists, pursing your lips, or rolling your eyes.”

Don’t Make Excuses

Though it may be tempting to blurt out a retort to your critiquer to justify your reasoning, it’s best to avoid immediately responding with angry excuses. Instead, pause for a moment to allow yourself time to process the critique, and then respond in a calmer and more polished manner.

“If you need more time to respond, it is fine to calmly say, ‘I appreciate you bringing this to my attention and will follow-up with you on how I plan to overcome this challenge,’” says Gottsman. “If you feel the feedback is unduly harsh or unfair, ask for some time to process the information while you formulate your next step.”

Listen and Ask

An important part of taking criticism effectively is showing that you’re listening by asking thoughtful questions. Bringing a pen and paper to your review meeting and asking for your boss’s advice on how you can improve shows your commitment to both the company and your responsibilities.

Colleagues also may have something to offer if you’re willing to keep an open mind. “When a colleague critiques your performance or project, listen carefully to what he or she is saying before responding,” says Gottsman. “Trust your instincts but also eliminate your own ego when determining whether the comment is fair. Offer thoughtful feedback as long as it is constructive – especially if you are collaborating on a project together.” She adds that if you feel unfairly leveled with criticism from a peer that makes you feel uncomfortable with your work environment, you should schedule a meeting to talk to your supervisor about it.

Show Gratitude

Delivering constructive criticism can be a challenge. According to Elster, criticism is rarely given well, because it takes a lot of skill to deliver criticism in a way that the other person “gets it” and says thank you. Despite this fact, you can rise above the petty by thanking your boss or colleague for his or her honesty and professionalism when offering feedback.

“Ask for clarification if you have any questions,” advises Gottsman. “It’s important to realize that criticism, when constructive, can be a great opportunity for improvement and growth. If the criticism does not feel accurate, then it’s an important lesson – that it may be how others see you.” She adds that it’s always best to thank the person who is giving you the feedback for taking the time to give it: “You can also say, ‘I need to think this through before I respond,’ or ‘I’m not sure I agree with you, but thank you for telling me how you feel.’”

“You may have to forgive this person if the message was not delivered well,” concludes Elster. “Best to thank the person for taking the time to think through what they had to say, and let them know that you will take it all under consideration.”