You can become more at ease
with criticism of your work
During my first coaching session with “Jodie,” a talented scientist, she expressed frustration about not getting the challenging assignments she thought she deserved. She theorized that she might be a victim of gender discrimination. Or perhaps she wasn’t respected because her Ph.D. was from a university some regarded as second-tier.
I heard a different story when, with Jodie’s permission, I interviewed some of her current and former colleagues. It was clear that Jodie’s accomplishments and credentials were widely respected. But people were reluctant involve her in demanding or innovative projects because she was so overly sensitive to criticism.
One colleague liked Jodie personally but suggested it could be exhausting and time-consuming to work with her. “When we start something new, it’s normal to make false starts. Somebody comes up with an idea, we try it out, and if doesn’t work the team gets together to pick it apart. But when Jodie’s on the team she’s so defensive that we all have to walk on egg shells.”
As we spoke, Jodie became aware that her inability to accept negative feedback was limiting her professional growth. And she acknowledged that she had long found it difficult to accept criticism, not only at work but also with her friends and family. A harsh comment could make her feel physically ill, and might send her mind racing with protests and catastrophic predictions.
Jodie found that her employer’s family assistance program would subsidize the cost of weekly counseling to help her learn how to better manage her visceral response to any disparaging comment. She felt some relief when she understood that it’s normal for people to react more strongly to just a bit of criticism than they might to lot of praise. Soon she was learning to manage both the angry, defensive voice in her head, and the physical pain she felt when it seemed like she was under attack.
Meanwhile, in the context of coaching, Jodie developed this plan to overcome her reputation as someone too delicate to be part of a problem-solving team:
- Recruit support. Jodie scheduled individual meetings with several trusted colleagues to let each know that she was working to get better at accepting negative feedback. She said she was becoming more comfortable in an environment where people typically make well-meaning but blunt suggestions about each other’s work. She asked for both patience and suggestions about how to engage in the give-and-take normal among the high performers in her group. And she requested that colleagues not to try to keep her away from situations where they thought her feelings might get hurt.
- Pause before responding. During counseling, Jodie noticed how her defensive reaction to criticism tended to quickly build until she couldn’t seem to contain it. As she became better at spotting her emotional build-up, she learned to take a few deep breaths instead of immediately expressing her anger. She found that if she waited a day or two, criticism might feel less like a personal assault and more like a useful suggestion. And if she felt particularly wounded, she might soothe herself with a treat, like arranging for a massage, or taking her husband out for a nice dinner.
- Stand in the speaker’s shoes. Once Jodie slowed down her quick response to criticism, she then tried to look at it from the standpoint of the critic. Sometimes she would write an analysis because that helped her to be objective. She would address questions like:
- Who made the comment? Did it come from her boss, who might be typing to help her? From someone with expertise different from hers? And does the speaker have goals that are valid, although not the same as hers?
- What might she learn from the comment?
- Was the remark truly about her work or idea, or did it say more about the mood of the person who spoke? If it was just a casual comment from someone having a bad day, she might just let it go.
- Define the goal of any response. Once she paused and thought about the criticism, Jodie would decide whether something could be gained from answering back. She wouldn’t indulge in venting. But if an important point were at stake, she would frame her arguments in a positive and strategic way.
- Practice accepting corrections. To become better at remaining detached from the emotional impact of criticism, Jodie decided to practice in situations where the risks were low. She signed up for a creative writing course and learned to keep her cool when it was her turn to have an assignment critiqued by the class. And she joined a knitting group where more experienced knitters helped her to untangle the mistakes she made with her needles.
It’s normal to feel defensive when people criticize you. But feeling insulted is painful and doesn’t get you anywhere. With practice you can develop a thicker skin. You can choose to let go of your hurt feelings and refocus on the work product or concept under discussion.