Have you ever received criticism and felt defensive, defeated, or disappointed, though the remarks were constructive and designed to help you improve? If this is the case, it’s highly possible you need to become better versed in accepting criticism, which can be a valuable aspect of growing healthy relationships professionally and personally.
For example, constructive criticism is necessary because it helps a person:
- Build emotional intelligence
- Become aware of their “blindspots,” or areas that they may not realize are weaknesses
- Practice open and honest communication
- Challenge their perspective, allowing them to see things from different angles
- Think critically about their beliefs and behaviors, which encourages them to learn and grow
- Empathize with others more easily
- Stay on track toward achieving goals and living by their values
As Carl Sagan, consultant and adviser to NASA, once said, “One of the criteria for leadership should be a talent for understanding, encouraging, and making constructive use of vigorous criticism.” For this reason, receiving constructive criticism is a skill that should be developed over time with practice. If you’re normally defensive and easily upset by negative feedback, keep an open mind and learn to take it in stride so you can become a better version of yourself.
In this article, learn how to handle criticism professionally and maturely to improve upon your weaknesses and grow into a more well-rounded person.
- When someone criticizes you, try to view their opinions as potentially useful information that can broaden your perspective.
- Handling criticism at work well shows that you’re emotionally intelligent, which builds trust and stronger relationships.
- According to a survey conducted by PsychTests, people who handle criticism in a mature manner are more likely to perform better at work, have higher self-esteem, and achieve better grades in school.
- In one survey, 92% of people said that constructive criticism is effective at improving workplace performance. Another survey found 65% of employees want more feedback at work to help them grow.
- When dealing with criticism, stay calm, don’t assume the worst, listen carefully, and respond thoughtfully.
Why Handling Criticism Is an Important Life Skill
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”Bill Gates
Handling criticism can be challenging, especially if the criticism is directed at something you care about deeply, such as your intelligence or character. Yet, it’s essential to work on your ability to absorb and respond to criticism, particularly if it’s constructive criticism from a trusted source.
Here are some of the ways you can benefit from criticism:
- Personal growth: When someone provides you with criticism, it identifies areas for improvement and provides valuable feedback that can help you develop. Rather than getting defensive and upset, use it as a tool for self-improvement.
- Professional development: In the workplace, feedback and criticism can enhance your job performance, lead to the development of new skills, and allow you to advance in your career. Learning to handle criticism professionally and productively allows you to succeed in your career by displaying maturity, humility, and adaptability. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkmano, researchers and writers for Harvard Business Review, say that criticism “grabs someone’s attention” like a “whack on the side of the head.” They point out, “Negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink.” According to their research published in Sage Journal, among thousands of leaders, those who have received the most negative feedback improved the most.
- Relationship building: Criticism can be an opportunity to build stronger relationships with others since it shows that you respect other people’s opinions. By listening to criticism calmly and respectfully, you let others know you’re receptive to their feedback and willing to work collaboratively to resolve issues.
- Emotional well-being: Criticism can be emotionally challenging, but ultimately it’s necessary for your well-being. By developing coping strategies for dealing with criticism, you can avoid becoming overwhelmed or reactive every time someone disagrees with you or says something that paints you in a negative light.
Types of Criticism + How to Differentiate Them
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”Winston Churchill
People face different types of criticism, each of which requires a different skill set to respond to effectively. Not all criticism is constructive or helpful; it can also be hurtful, mean-spirited, or lacking in substance. It’s important to differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism because when you understand the type of criticism you’re dealing with, you’ll better understand how to respond to it appropriately.
Here are common types of criticism:
- Constructive criticism: Constructive criticism is usually specific, actionable, and offered in a supportive and non-judgmental manner. This type of criticism is intended to be helpful and is focused on providing feedback aimed at improving a specific behavior or performance.
- Destructive criticism: Destructive criticism can be personal and may attack someone’s character, intelligence, or abilities rather than addressing a specific behavior or performance. This type of criticism is intended to be hurtful and is focused on tearing someone down rather than offering helpful feedback.
- Unfounded criticism: Unfounded criticism can stem from misunderstandings or a lack of knowledge. This type of criticism is often based on false or inaccurate information, or assumptions that are baseless, making it frustrating to deal with. Unfounded criticism is the most likely type to cause defensiveness and arguments.
- Self-criticism: When criticism comes from within and is directed at oneself, it’s called self-criticism, which can be helpful in promoting self-awareness and personal growth, but also damaging to one’s self-esteem. Self-criticism is one component of negative self-talk, which is ultimately destructive and usually unproductive.
- Online criticism: This type of criticism is often found on social media and other online platforms. Online criticism can be particularly challenging because it can be anonymous and can spread quickly, potentially leading to a large volume of negative comments and feedback.
How to Handle Criticism in 5 Steps
“Feedback is a gift. Ideas are the currency of our next success. Let people see you value both feedback and ideas.”Jim Trinka and Les Wallace
There are several strategies you can use when responding to criticism that are advantageous:
1. Pause and Reflect
When someone offers you negative feedback, first take a step back, breathe, and give yourself time to reflect. This approach helps you stay calm so you can use your best judgment to respond appropriately and avoid doing anything you may regret.
- Take a few deep breaths and try to separate yourself from the emotions you may be feeling. As Justin Bariso points out in an article for Inc., intelligent people “do not let emotion close their minds. The key is to be proactive, not reactive.”
- Separate your personal feelings from the feedback you receive. It can be helpful to name how you’re feeling, such as “angry” or “embarrassed.”
- If your natural reaction is to become defensive or reactive, leave the situation and take some time to think before responding. You may want to explain that you’ll contact someone later after you’ve had a chance to process their feedback.
2. Avoid Taking It Personally
Although it might not feel this way, criticism is usually not a personal attack. Most often, people are telling you that you’re doing something “wrong” to improve your relationship or make you aware of your weaknesses. As Tim Fargo once said, “Mistakes should be examined, learned from, and discarded; not dwelled upon and stored.”
- Ask yourself why someone is giving you criticism in the first place. Are they trying to help you or make themselves feel better? Chances are they aren’t trying to hurt you intentionally.
- Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Be kind to yourself and question inner criticism rather than harping on anything negative that was said to you.
- Show yourself compassion by reminding yourself that everyone has weaknesses and areas for improvement. Focus on the fact that we’re all human and no one is perfect.
- Know you can’t please everyone. If you’re being criticized at work, Ron Carucci for Harvard Business Review suggests considering it “just a part of the job.” In his words, “When you rise to levels of leadership, consider that your actions now play out on the jumbotron for all to see and evaluate. The higher you rise, the broader that visibility. Sometimes you’ll get things wrong. Given the thousands of decisions you likely make each week, you will inevitably disappoint or enrage someone.”
3. Consider the Source
It’s important to consider who is criticizing you, specifically if it’s someone you trust and respect. If the person’s feedback is valuable, appreciate that they’ve taken the time to try and teach you something.
- If criticism comes from someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart or doesn’t have the necessary expertise, it may be best to take their feedback with a grain of salt.
- If it’s destructive criticism, consider the source and determine whether any response at all is necessary. Ignoring the criticism is sometimes the best approach.
- You don’t have to completely write off someone providing feedback or be rude, but you also don’t have to overthink what someone said if you generally don’t value their opinions.
- Ultimately, filter all feedback through your values to determine how to respond.
4. Look for Kernels of Truth
Even when criticism feels unfair or harsh, there may be a kernel of truth to it. Focus on the message, not the messenger by trying to identify what you can learn from the feedback and how to use it to develop your character and skills. In Elon Musk’s words, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”
- When someone is criticizing you, listen actively and try to understand their perspective rather than assuming they’re entirely wrong.
- Ask clarifying questions to ensure you fully understand their feedback. Aim to have an open conversation with the goal of hearing each other out instead of talking at each other.
- Take time to reflect on what the person had to say, even if you initially disagree with their opinions. Contemplate the feedback by asking yourself if there’s a gap in your communication, knowledge, or other skills that you could work on.
- William Cunningham explains in a Science article, “It is a compliment to have your work taken seriously enough that someone is willing to read it and share their critiques.” Show maturity by thanking the person for their feedback, and if appropriate, let them know how you plan to use it.
5. Take Action and Improve
Once you’ve had a chance to reflect on the criticism, take action to address any issues or areas for improvement. This can help you demonstrate that you take feedback seriously and are committed to personal and professional growth, which ultimately boosts your self-confidence.
- Discuss the criticism and your feelings about it with another third-party friend or trusted coworker to gain another perspective.
- Journal about how you feel after receiving criticism, including some of the ways that the critic may have been right.
- Naomi Winstone, a feedback researcher, encourages people to keep records of constructive criticism they receive in order to categorize their strengths and weaknesses and identify a plan for improvement. She created an online tool called FEATS (Feedback Engagement and Tracking System) that helps people log feedback.
- Consider being proactive about seeking out feedback in the future. This can help you grow accustomed to handling feedback and gaining a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.
What to Avoid When Dealing With Critics
“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”Attributed to Aristotle
In order to keep a level head when confronted with a critic, here are some things to avoid to handle the situation in a constructive manner:
- Getting defensive and confrontational: It’s natural to feel defensive when someone criticizes you, but try to keep your emotions in check. Don’t lash out at the person criticizing you, be confrontational, or seem argumentative, all of which suggests you may be insecure and unwilling to admit you’re not perfect. Instead, try to approach the situation with an open mind and a willingness to learn and grow.
- Ignoring the feedback: It’s easy to dismiss criticism, but it’s important to take it seriously and consider the feedback. Even if you disagree with the criticism, try to understand where the other person is coming from and why they might feel that way.
- Focusing only on the negative: Dwelling on the negative aspects of criticism not only brings down your mood and confidence, but it also means you miss out on potentially beneficial constructive feedback. Keep your eyes on the positive aspects of the situation, such as the fact that someone cares enough about you to offer feedback or feels comfortable enough with you to be honest.
Accepting Feedback as Part of a Growth Mindset
A “growth mindset,” popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck, is all about believing that one’s abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication, hard work, and persistence. Being growth-oriented means you can accept that you’re currently not perfect, but you’re willing to embrace challenges and view failures as opportunities for learning. This contrasts with a fixed mindset, in which people view their weaknesses as a reflection of poor character and limited abilities that can’t be overcome.
Here are tips for adopting a growth mindset to make the most of opportunities:
- Embrace challenging situations: Don’t be scared to take risks and try something out of your comfort zone, considering that the worst that can happen is that you learn from your mistakes. For example, be willing to take on a new project or role at work even if you’ve never done it before, knowing that you can prepare and learn as you go.
- See setbacks as a part of the process: When you have the desire to continuously improve, accept that sometimes you’ll deal with roadblocks and mistakes. Don’t blame yourself when things don’t always go according to plan or end up perfectly. As long as you keep pushing forward, missteps shouldn’t completely derail your progress and stand in your way, especially if you own up to mistakes and take accountability.
- Avoid seeing things in black and white: People with fixed mindsets believe that either someone is good or bad at something. However, there’s a lot of gray area between these two extremes. When you’re struggling with something at work, such as public speaking or meeting sales targets for example, instead of telling yourself you’re not good at those tasks, play into your strengths and work on improving your weaknesses. Keep in mind that having weaknesses doesn’t mean you’re not a good person or capable of doing a job well. Instead of telling yourself “I’m a total failure” after being criticized, remove your ego and look for a lesson to be learned.
Want to learn more about giving constructive criticism and helpful feedback? Check out this article: “How to Give Effective Feedback at Work.”
Leaders Media has established sourcing guidelines and relies on relevant, and credible sources for the data, facts, and expert insights and analysis we reference. You can learn more about our mission, ethics, and how we cite sources in our editorial policy.
- Daskal, L. (2016, June 14). 100 Motivational Quotes That Will Help You Handle Criticism. Inc. https://www.inc.com/lolly-daskal/100-motivational-quotes-that-will-help-you-handle-criticism.html
- Queendom. Sensitivity to Criticism Test. https://www.queendom.com/about/media/pr_psychtests_sensitivity_criticism_test.html
- Oak. (2021, April 29). Employee Feedback Statistics: How to Improve Feedback Culture in Your Company. https://www.oak.com/blog/employee-feedback-statistics/
- Zippia. (2021, February 5). Employee Feedback Statistics for Employers in 2021. https://www.zippia.com/advice/employee-feedback-statistics/
- Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2013, March). The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism
- Kernis, M. H., & Waschull, S. B. (2003). The Interactive Roles of Stability and Level of Self-Esteem: Research and Theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7(3), 210-222. doi: 10.1177/1088868303253208 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002764203260208
- Posture Group. Client Feedback: The Importance of Listening and Responding to Feedback. https://www.posturegroup.co.uk/blog/client-feedback
- Bariso, J. (2017, May 15). How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Criticism: They Don’t Do This. Inc. https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/how-emotionally-intelligent-people-handle-criticism-they-dont-do-this.html
- Carucci, R. How Leaders Should Handle Public Criticism. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/12/how-leaders-should-handle-public-criticism
- BrainyQuote. Elon Musk Quotes. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/elon_musk_567271.
- Science Magazine. (2020, June 2). Science relies on constructive criticism. Here’s how to keep it useful and respectful. https://www.science.org/content/article/science-relies-constructive-criticism-here-s-how-keep-it-useful-and-respectful
- American Psychological Association. (2021, October). Career advice: Constructive criticism. Monitor on Psychology, 52(8). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/10/career-constructive-criticism
- University of Surrey. Feedback Engagement Tracking at Surrey. Institute of Education, Learning Lab. https://www.surrey.ac.uk/institute-of-education/learning-lab/feedback-engagement-tracking-surrey