Embracing the Critics: How to Handle Constructive Feedback
“You can’t handle the truth!”
That passionate line, barked by Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup in the iconic, early-90’s flick A Few Good Men, is not exactly what I would call constructive criticism. His response comes in the midst of an intense interrogation during an emotional military trial. Up to this point in the movie, Col. Jessup’s actions have been repeatedly questioned and criticized. By the end, the proud officer can’t take it anymore so he finally lets it all out.
Sometimes, it’s hard to handle the truth. Especially at work.
When you put a ton of time and effort into a project, you probably believe you’re right. After all, you’re the closest to the information or topic at hand. How could someone else not agree?
Most people are not fond of being criticized—but I’m weird and love it. I find that most criticism is not malicious. In fact, it’s usually quite helpful. I encourage debate. I see feedback as a chance to make my work better and to grow as a professional.
But if you’re a normal human being who cringes at the thought of disagreement and conflict here are a few tips to help you better swallow the advice of your critics.
Keep Your Initial Reaction Under Wraps
This can be tough. When you’ve put so much energy into a project and someone picks it apart, your initial response is probably not the best.
Try not to overreact. Instead, stay calm and take your defensive gloves off.
One thing I’ve realized is that people have different tastes. The way you do things may not be the way someone else would’ve done them. Take the classic, toilet paper debate into consideration. Do you prefer the paper to go over or under the roll? (I used to be all-in on over, but I have gone under now that I have a toddler in the house.) Whichever way you prefer doesn’t really matter—it still gets the job done.
The point is that not everyone is going to give you criticism the way you might want to receive it. Some folks are direct, others beat around the bush. You can’t control it.
However, you can control how you respond to your critics. A knee-jerk reaction is usually not a good idea. It can cause you to miss something important that you’ve overlooked. It also blinds you from being able to see that (hopefully) your critic is also trying to help you reach the same end goal.
Take a deep breath and move on.
Listen with an Open Mind
Ernest Hemingway once said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” There’s so much truth in that quote. Listening completely requires you to be slow to speak and take in feedback with an open mind. Think before you react. Does the person offering the criticism make a valid point?
Part of developing strong listening skills involves having the willingness to see the other person’s point of view. Constructive feedback isn’t about telling you how wrong you did something, but what you can do to make it better.
Be Cautious of Your Body Language
When speaking face-to-face, it’s important to remember that you represent your organization. Your body language can tell the other person a lot about you and how you’re reacting to their criticism. Facial expressions, crossing your arms, and the occasional eye roll can leave the other person feeling uncomfortable or unable to speak freely. Worse yet, it may frustrate them. That’s not good for anybody.
Having awareness about your body language makes you a great communicator. Practice your facial expressions in the mirror, ask someone you trust to critique your posture or give you feedback about your reaction to things you may not want to hear.
Use the Magic Words—Please and Thank You
I firmly believe these words can go a long way. Whether you’re hosting an event or meeting about a project, ask your audience to please give you feedback on how your team handled things. This is often a welcomed surprise to your audience because it makes them feel as though you value their opinion.
After your conversation, say “Thank you”. This shows your critic that you have taken everything they said into consideration. Your progress is contingent on how your customers or members feel about you and your organization. A simple, genuine thank you can leave a lasting impression.
Talk About It
After receiving constructive criticism, sometimes I find that I have more questions than answers. Often, I’ll start asking questions immediately. What makes you feel that way? How important is it to emphasize that point? What do you think could make this even stronger? If possible, I like to take more time to mull over what the other person shared. Usually, I find their opinion invaluable.
Asking questions to help find solutions shows the other person you’re willing to make improvements. It also means that you’re open to suggestions. That’s how you keep a positive feedback loop going.
Recognizing Criticism vs. Complaining
Occasionally, you’ll come across someone you just can’t please. They will find every single thing wrong with your work. For example, someone may take issue with the color scheme of the event you’re producing, or the font you used in a promotional email, how you speak, the topic of your blog, or your organization’s logo. They may even turn the conversation into a rant about themselves. How dare they!
There’s a difference between constructive criticism and complaining. It’s important that you recognize when someone is offering you the latter. However, it’s still important that you make them feel validated, so listen. But don’t let yourself get dragged into a fight you can’t win.
Don’t Take it Personal
Sometimes people just want to be heard, and that’s okay—just don’t internalize it. Constructive criticism isn’t about attacking you as a person; it’s about turning it into tools you can use to be successful. It’s true that nobody is perfect. Which means there is always room to grow. Stay confident.
Here’s some truth I think you can handle by now:
- There are people out there with good ideas.
- They will disagree with you from time to time.
- Talk to those people.
- Welcome their ideas, advice and critiques.
- You’ll get better each time.
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