Strategies for dealing with criticism?
March 27, 2011 9:31 AM   Subscribe

How can I take criticism better without getting defensive?
posted by drezdn to Human Relations (12 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
By "getting defensive," do you mean feeling defensive, or do you mean communicating in a defensive manner with the person who gave you the feedback? They're two different, though related, problems.
posted by decathecting at 9:33 AM on March 27, 2011

An example or two might be illuminating. Who is providing the criticism, and how?
posted by germdisco at 9:42 AM on March 27, 2011

I'll assume the people criticizing you know what they're talking about and are worth listening to.

That said: try to keep in mind that the only reason they're bothering to offer critique is because they think you can improve. If they didn't take you seriously, they wouldn't take the time to try and guide you toward a better outcome.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:56 AM on March 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

When you are criticized, ask yourself "In what way is this criticism asking me to grow?" Not why, but how. This question has two benefits.

First, it separates out constructive criticism from destructive criticism. Those that are not actually asking you to grow are not worth your time.

Second, if you can actually answer the question, then you have a path towards learning from the criticism. This makes it easier to respond to the criticism with equanimity.
posted by Jpfed at 10:13 AM on March 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

You could try and program yourself with some alternative responses to criticism, for example:

A. Your grammar is bad in this email.
B. Thank you for telling me!

A. This graphic is not fun enough.
B. I'm not sure I see what you mean, can you elaborate?

A. This advert is not clean enough.
B. Do you think it would be better with more white space and with this bit lined up with that bit?

A. When you asked Susan to wear less perfume she got terribly offended.
B. It was certainly a difficult problem. What would you have done?

A. This user interface is too difficult to use.
B. So what's your take on UI design and ease of use? What do you think makes things easy for our userbase?

A. Your report is late.
B. I know! Maybe you can help. Do you have any recommendations for getting the statistics you need out of Department X on time?

A. You have not filled in the TPS report.
B. There are TPS reports? What's the best way for me to learn about the TPS reports? Are there any other things like this that I should be doing that I might not be aware of?
posted by emilyw at 10:30 AM on March 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I help myself to take criticism without getting upset or getting defensive by saying 'Thank you' in response to each comment. If there's something I really think the person has overlooked then I allow myself to ask a clarification question like "So that would be the most appropriate action even when I had just . . . ?" But only one or two.

Keeps my mind focussed on how it could be done better and less on the hard work I'd put in/the emotional investment I have here/the millions of reasons I had for doing it the way I did etc etc.
posted by kadia_a at 10:31 AM on March 27, 2011

If the criticism is perceived as an attack, then you have 3 issues: (1) is the person really attacking me or do I just feel that way? (2) if it is an attack, why are they attacking me? (3) what is the issue they are bringing up? Many people get into spats and throw their laundry list of grievances against the other person. But usually there is some underlying issue, probably not even listed. I found a book called "Your Perfect Right" was very helpful to me in understanding aggression vs. assertiveness and how to deal with the aggression of others (and my own) and how to conduct yourself, even in stressful situations. It is all too easy to get angry and lash back out. The book teaches you to recognize various situations and makes suggestions on how to handle them. If the issue is contentious or if the other party (or you for that matter) is worked up, then schedule a time when you can explicitly address what is going on. That lets you both cool down and think about it. The other party may decide that they overreacted and were just having a bad day. Parents call them "time outs" for a good reason.

An assertive response might be something like "you seem to be more worked up than my leaving my socks on the floor warrants. Can we schedule a time to discuss this?". You have to watch your tone of voice, your body language, and try to make the behavior the issue and not your personality or worth as a human being. And you need enough time to thoroughly air things.

If the criticism is offered in a constructive way, then I have found that it helps to just acknowledge that you have heard the person and that you would like to think about it. That gets by any kind of knee-jerk reaction your might have. Consider whether there is any merit in what is being brought up. You might ask others if they agree that this is an issue for you. If your friends and family and co-workers etc. all agree that yes, there is an issue, then you can work on it.

If you feel that the criticisms are appropriate and that you are not being attacked, then the issue might be one of self-esteem or perfectionism. "If someone criticizes me, I feel miserable because this automatically means there is something wrong with me". - "Feeling Good The New Mood Therapy" pg. 262. If that sentence applies, look into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.
posted by PickeringPete at 10:40 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Split that into "acting defensive" and "feeling defensive".

1) If you have a habit of spontaneously acting defensive (which can be socially problematic), train yourself in quick identifications, using the question "does he criticize my opinion or my actions/attitude?"

Opinions are totally okay to vary, unless they are about issues of morale, or philosophy. If you're not talking about any of these, you can relax. Even if the other person is acting on the basis of misinformation, still relax. It's not you, it's them. If philosophy or morale is involved, just walk away. There's no way to solve this; preaching is highly ineffective, shouting just makes things worse, and no matter what else, even here, it's likely not you, it's a mismatch of conversation partners.

For those cases where you feel that your actions or attitude are being criticized, develop some simple techniques of (largely trained, mechanized) neutral responses (like saying "I need time with this," or "could you explain" or something, instead of the - also largely trained and mechanized - typical defensive wtf, hear who's talkin, get off my lane-y responses), and if possible, even physically retreat to think matters through.

2) If you feel defensive (like, after the situation has taken place), you can work out the problem, using some kind of filtering technique. For example:

First, accept your hurt feelings (nobody likes to be criticized) as a fact.
Now ask yourself why someone criticized you. Split that in two:
- Write down a sarcastic column about the motives of the criticizer, as you see them. Just go overboard a little, like "he's just projecting, he actually gave me a blueprint of everything that's wrong with him", "he's stressed", "he's a busybody" etc. (or if it's your boss: "he has no *beep* idea how hard I've tried", or whatever else suitable.)

- Make a second column where you identify any possible constructive, or at least true, content of the criticism you got, in general terms, such as, "he perhaps has an interest in supporting me," "other people are my only source of information about the impression I'm making, so perhaps this is something I should listen to," and so on (or if it's your boss: "he's right, isn't he"), but also specifically depending on the situation at hand.

After you've worked off your anger in the sarcastic column, you are better able address the positive column. Thinking this through might lead toward strategies of what you can do about anything you feel needs improvement. Anything that doesn't apply, on the other hand, has nothing to do with you, and can be dismissed.
posted by Namlit at 10:44 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think we need some more info here!
posted by sucre at 11:11 AM on March 27, 2011

It's important to be both strong and flexible within oneself. Defensiveness may be strong, but tends to be rigid rather than flexible.

Generic attributes that promote intrapersonal flexibility without sacrificing strength, in no particular order:
  1. In whatever way necessary, learn to recognize, understand, and firmly establish the distinction between criticism and judgment in your own mind. Proficiency in this skill will make it possible to accept and process constructively critical elements in a positive manner while filtering out judgmental or gratuitous ones, without triggering any defensive reaction at all.
  2. Since perfection is impossible, put more importance on continually becoming better than on being correct. In this way, you can come to genuinely appreciate those who offer you direct criticism, as they may provide you with insights that more polite and circumspect people will not.
  3. Practice honest self-reflection frequently. If doing this makes you uncomfortable, develop the habit while in comfortable surroundings where and when you are away from potentially contentious interactions with others. If even this is too uncomfortable, start with your past selves, focusing on choices you made and how you might make them differently today, and work your way up to the present. The more you do this, the more you will be able to accept your imperfections (and track your improvements), and the less threatening it will seem when others show them to you.

posted by perspicio at 11:58 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, it depends on the kind of criticism, I think. Some people make it personal, some just sound like it's personal. And some people will say, "Here's what I didn't like, I suggest this as to how to fix it," vs. "I don't like it. I can't explain why. I just don't like it." The latter is just annoying and unhelpful.

Remind yourself that:
(a) they are NOT trying to deliberately stab you in the heart.
(b) they are trying to help you. Like when someone points out that you have spinach in your teeth--that's not an insult, right?

Oh, and (c) ask them how they'd fix it/do it better, with details.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:40 PM on March 27, 2011

Practice having someone say critical things to you, while you control your response. Have them start with light criticisms and advance to yelling criticisms at you. I've done this, and it was very helpful.
posted by cheesecake at 3:54 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

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