Most of us cringe when we hear someone say, “Can I offer you some constructive criticism?” We’re pretty sure nothing good follows the offer. Criticism has become a word that feels loaded with negative connotations, implying disapproval of faults, although criticism means analysis in art. If you can manage your reaction to criticism, you’ll be more likely to grow professionally – and personally.
It’s easy to assume that criticism will be about what you’re doing wrong, especially coming from your boss. That assumption can make you defensive, which almost guarantees you won’t get the benefit of any advice. When you’re feeling defensive, you’re spending your energy debating and countering what you’re hearing rather than listening carefully.
But feedback from your manager may not be about correcting what you’re doing wrong; it’s just as likely intended to take you from adequate to good – or from good to great. The critical part of the feedback is the “constructive” part: you should get specific information about your performance and actions to improve outcomes next time. If you can keep an open mind, you’ll receive information that can take you to the next level.
Here’s how to stay in the moment and hear what a well-meaning person is trying to say.
First, take a deep breath and smile. Smiling might not be your natural reaction, but it’s a powerful signal, both to the person you’re talking to and yourself. Smiling indicates your openness to feedback and confidence, making a positive impression. Remember that even academy award-winning actors take direction on the set.
Second, recognize that even though the advice may be sincere, it might not be accurate. It’s filtered through someone’s personal experience, preferences, and biases, and it might not work that well for you. Separate the intent (to help you improve) from the actual advice (which may or may not be helpful or actionable.) This also allows you to thank them sincerely for their intent, whether or not you implement what they suggest.
One way to show that you’re present and listening is to ask thoughtful questions. If someone offers feedback right after a meeting or presentation or in a crowded place, you’re well within your rights to ask for a meeting later so you can focus on what they have to say. (This also has the benefit of giving you emotional space if you’re still feeling defensive.) Ask for clarification about the feedback to make sure you understand what they’re trying to convey. Ask, also, about what they thought you did well. This gives them the chance to consider the positive aspects of your performance, based on their point of view– and possibly from other people’s perspectives in the room. They may have noticed reactions that you were too busy or too focused to see.
Finally, remember that well-intentioned feedback is an investment in your development. You can take it as a sign your manager or team member thinks you’re worth the time and commitment it takes to help you achieve your full potential.
Constructive criticism can be an opportunity for real change and growth, even if it feels uncomfortable at the moment. You’re not alone if it’s uncomfortable; even great men struggle with it. No less than Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”