Handling Criticism

and how to improve giving feedback


No one likes it, yet everyone has to deal with it from time to time – criticism. Criticizing others is easier than being on the receiving end. Research has showed that criticism triggers our stress system and our ancient survival mechanism of “fight-or-flight” response activates. Breathing goes faster, and the heart rate goes up. No wonder we respond defensively or angrilym – emotions are part of being criticized. The extent to which it personally affects you depends mainly on your self-esteem. However, it does not mean that one has to give into it, and avoiding it could mean you miss crucial learning opportunities. Instead, learn how to handle criticism – this can save a lot of effort and defensive reactions. 

How NOT to respond

When criticized, one experiences a great deal of stress, which activates the “fight-or-flight” response. This can cause two things to happen: 

Flight response: You disagree entirely with the criticism, ignoring the feedback and avoiding the person giving it. 

Fight response: You counteract and react defensively, eventually blaming the other person. 

Whether fighting or ignoring the criticism, neither reaction will help you in the long run. By viewing the criticism as a threat and not processing or accepting the criticism, the content gets lost. The result will only make you subconsciously feel bad about yourself or your performance.

How to do it RIGHT

When dealing with criticism, you will have to avoid what you likely tend to do – no fleeing, no fighting. Here are five tips: 

1. Recognize the instinctual response

The first step is to recognize and disable your first automatic response. When receiving criticism, pay attention to the stress response indicators: Are you breathing faster than usual? Is your heart rate going up? Do you feel pressure in the chest? Are you having a bad feeling in your stomach or general discomfort?

To reduce the stress response, try to breathe calmly to signal your brain to stop producing stress hormones. When breathing is controlled and slowed, your brain received the message that you are in control of the situation. This calms the part of the brain that is in charge of the “fight-or-flight” response.

2. Ask for time

Receiving criticism can be hard on the brain, especially receiving multiple complaints at the same time. To prevent the automatic response and process the feedback with your rational brain, it is essential to ask the critic for a time-out. Whether responding immediately or returning to it later, responding to criticism indicates that you take the person and feedback seriously. 

A time-out gives your brain and the stress response time to calm down. Besides, it helps you to distance yourself from the situation and evaluate the feedback.

3. Understanding the criticism

Focus on the literal message and not on what you think, suspect, or fear what the other person is saying. If necessary, keep asking questions for more clarity. 

Example: Ask the critic what they exactly mean before responding defensively based on your interpretation. Your manager might think that you could have done a better job, but that does not mean that you are not a valued employee. Keep it together and continue asking questions, even with relatively large points of criticism.

4. Admitting and resolving

Admitting that the feedback has merit or acknowledging the critic’s dissatisfaction can help the situation. When agreeing to something and looking for a solution, keep your emotions in check to maintain a healthy working relationship. Getting past the intuitive feelings of anger, irritation, shame, sadness, or resentment helps avoid getting stuck in what you think is wrong about the feedback based on intense emotions.

Discuss what the other person would like while voicing what you need to do better or differently. This helps to ensure a solution together instead of blaming and making demands from both sides.

5. Prevention: Ask for feedback

Asking for feedback might feel counterintuitive, but it comes with great benefits. This way, you are better prepared, and it shows assertiveness and openness to improvements. In addition, it puts you in control over when, where, and who you ask for feedback. 

Ask the right person for feedback, someone who can give honest and constructive answers. Suggest a place and time, for example, in an empty room with privacy from other colleagues. Ask questions – what do you want feedback on? For instance: Can you give me advice on how I handled [insert specific situation]? Do you have feedback on how I have been executing my role?

Improve Your Feedback Style 

Knowing how challenging and stressful it can be to deal with criticism, it is helpful to reflect on your feedback style to improve personal and professional relationships. Here are ten tips to improve giving feedback. 

1. Feedback is honest and specific.

The more specific you are, the more the other person can learn from it. 

2. Feedback is descriptive and relates to aspects of behavior that can be improved.

3. Both parties can benefit from the feedback. 

Empathize with the other person and make sure that the feedback will benefit them. 

4. Feedback is current. 

Give feedback as soon as possible. You can be more concrete, and the chance of recognition is greater.

5. The recipient is open to feedback. 

Ensure that it is the right time to give feedback. Speak to someone privately, at a time and place that works for both of you. 

6. Alternate positive and corrective feedback. 

When giving feedback, say something positive first, followed by the feedback, ending with something positive. This way, it shows appreciation, and the recipient receives the feedback with more understanding. 

7. Describe the observed behavior. 

State in concrete terms what you have observed and stick with the facts. 

8. Explain how the behavior affects you. 

If you are unhappy or angry, share these feelings. Use “I” messages instead of “you” messages.

9. Check if the receiver relates to the feedback. 

For example, ask questions such as: Do you recognize that? Do you understand what I mean?”

10. Suggest alternative behavior change

If you want to help improve someone, offer an alternative. 

Final Note

Criticism is never fun, and your emotional response is natural. However, to take optimal care of your mental health, it is essential to prevent the automatic stress-response when receiving criticism. Deep breathing and asking for a time-out can save you a lot of energy.  

Knowing how stressful criticism is makes reflecting on your feedback style even more crucial. Remember that feedback gives people a chance to improve their performance, while criticism can lead to an intrusive stress-response and possibly hurt relationships. Honesty and constructiveness go a long way!


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