How to Handle Criticism

Handling criticism, whether direct or perceived, is a key component to effective leadership.  Many leaders do not handle criticism well or in a healthy way.  Because of the power of the position the leader is in, he/she may not be aware he/she is losing some level of effectiveness based on his/her handling of criticism or perceived criticism.

I have been doing quite a bit of work in my life on handling criticism and/or perceived criticism.  My first reaction to both direct and perceived criticism has been defensiveness.  Throughout my life, as I received criticism, I felt a personal attack on my character.  Drilling down beneath the perceived personal attack, I found that when the criticism seemed to question my competence, I would become defensive.  By becoming defensive, I believe that I am protecting that part of me that feels stupid, powerless, and inept.  Here are some of the results of my being defensive:

  • I damage relationships.  My defensiveness, left unchecked will manifest itself in condescending language and action on my part.  If pushed to the point of a sense of powerlessness, I will power up in order to not feel weak.  From this place, I attack others’ character and ultimately hurt them emotionally in order to protect me.  This hurt I inflict ultimately slows productivity.

  • I cut off opportunities for growth.  By becoming defensive, I cease listening to anything constructive or not, that may help me grow.  My lack of growth keeps me form being an effective leader.

  • I create a false sense of who I am.  By cutting off any chances at growth, I create a world that may not match reality.  When I am not in touch with that reality, I make poor decisions.

  • I become isolated.  Putting all the above together, I build walls and ultimately create a critical, lonely environment for myself.  When I am in this place, I cannot be trusted as a leader.

So, as noted in the opening, I have been working on what triggers my defensiveness.  I am beginning to get a handle on the source of my defensiveness.  However, I cannot stop there.  Just recognizing my defensiveness is a great help to me, but it alone does not keep me from defending myself when I feel my competence being questioned.  I need a tool to guide me through the landmines of criticism.

I recently ran across a great process for handling criticism (both direct and perceived).  It boils down to three questions I can ask myself as I feel a criticism coming my way.

  • What about this criticism is not true and needs to be discarded?  As hear what is being said and I check in around the core truth about me and my character, what do I need to just let bounce off of me?

  • What about this criticism is not true but needs to be addressed?  This is a little trickier.  There is a fine line between handling this in a healthy way and being defensive.  The criticism is not true about me or my character.  However, I might show up in such a way that I might be perceived as being characterized how my critic accuses me.  A statement I use is, “I can see where I can be viewed this way…” and then I give the critic some data he/she may not know.  Then, I offer that my actions were not my intention and will be conscious of how I show up in the future.

  • What about this criticism can help me to become a better person?  What is true about my actions or words?  What can I own and take responsibility for in this situation?  What new awareness about me can I glean from this criticism? (I have to be careful not to make myself a martyr…by doing so…I am being defensive in a manipulative way.)

By breaking the oncoming criticism into these three categories, it simplifies how to handle my defensiveness.  I don’t voice these when dealing with others necessarily, but I do use them.  Here is a hypothetical example:  “I hear you say that am inconsiderate and I don’t like you.  Not liking you is not true, however I can see where the recent exchanges we have had have been confrontational in nature and I could have come across as if I do not like you.  In our confrontations, I am being directive.  I will pay attention in the future on how my directive action comes across.  When I made my directive statements, I did not consider your feelings before speaking.  I do not want to be an inconsiderate person.  I will ask more questions about you before making directive statements in order to consider your feelings before I speak.”  The “discard” is…I don’t like this person.  The “addressed” is how I show up in confrontation.  The part to “make myself better” is to take into consideration the other’s feelings before making directive statements.

As is true with any strategy of self-improvement, there is no magic formula.  Hopefully, breaking this into three easy to remember steps, can give all of us some tools to avoid defensiveness and live a more rounded, authentic life.

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