David Strittmatter

How to deal better with criticism

Last week I observed a couple arguing with each other. Previously, the female told her boyfriend that he was never listening. She gave him negative feedback about his behavior. Instead of listening to her, though, he rejected her claim and said it was her fault because she did not talk about interesting topics and he was just too tired to listen to every word. Their argument went on and on. He felt offended and had a desire to defend himself.

Have you ever experienced a similar situation to the previous one? Have you ever been criticized because of your behavior, look, language or something similar?

I have been and am regularly criticized by various people. I love feedback and genuinely embrace it. However, I have not always been like this. In particular, I had difficulties in dealing with criticism adequately.

In this article, I want to tell you which steps I follow in order to deal better with criticism. First of all, a little summary and, subsequently, I am going to explain it in more detail.

To put it in a nutshell:

  1. Take a short deep breath to lower your stress hormone levels
  2. Ask how the criticism is to be understood (gives you more time to calm down)
  3. Think: What could the other person be right about? What drives this person to give you feedback (constructive vs destructive criticism)?
  4. Tell them that you agree on points on which you are on the same page
  5. Try to understand: Keep questioning until you truly understand the issue
  6. Never justify yourself
  7. Request help: Be curious and ask them how you can improve your weaknesses

Feedback is the most valuable source for progress

1) Breathe! Bring down those stress hormones

Maybe you remember the last time someone criticized you: Someone tells you something negative (or at least not positive) about your behavior, your look, your technique or some other thing you value. Your body immediately responds defensively; you feel offended, attacked and challenged.

And why? (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to read a medical lecture) Amygdala, an integral part of the limbic system of your brain, informs the hypothalamus that “danger” is imminent. Then your hypothalamus releases hormonal messengers, including the corticotropin-releasing hormone. It ensures that it releases another hormone, adrenocorticotropin, or ACTH. It reaches the cortex of the adrenal gland with the blood and causes it to release the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, your breath accelerates, your pulse and your blood pressure rise, your liver produces more blood sugar and your spleen flushes out more red blood cells. All in all, your whole body suddenly functions differently.

In order to prevent an impulsive, imprudent reaction, you should take a deep breath, let the message sit and focus on staying calm.

2) Gain additional time – ask a (counter)question

As you will most likely need more time to calm down and clear your mind, you should ask the other person a question: “Sorry, but I don’t really get it. How is this to be understood?” or “Interesting! What do you exactly mean?”.

3) Think – consensus and motive

After gaining additional time, contemplate what the person could be right about and why this person shares their opinion with you. Have you already been criticized for the same reason before? Or did you observe the issue as well? You should identify points of agreement.

4) Get on the same page

Next, you should tell the person what you agree on. The goal is to signal that you are open and want to listen to their opinion, but also give yourself the chance to learn something new. Admitting weakness is a sign of strength. When you find common ground with the other person, the conversation immediately becomes more constructive and valuable.

5) Seek true understanding

By showing genuine interest and appreciation of their opinion, you established an atmosphere allowing you to access your friends’ knowledge. And now it is time for the most important step: What is exactly criticized and why? What does the other person don’t like about it and why?

Dig till you reach the core of the issue. When someone calls you “asshole”, you have no idea what this person dislikes about you and why. If you talk to this person and show real interest, you will most likely identify the real meaning of this insult. Maybe you are treating this person in a way that they don’t want to be treated or you said something you didn’t really mean as they understood it.

Through questioning, you will be able to truly understand the issue and the motive behind their criticism. There are destructive people who provide no added value. Their opinions are to be ignored.

There are also people who give you seemingly highly destructive feedback. Although they were not even asked for their opinion, they might be truly interested in helping you to improve. They are just not able to express their criticism properly. By listening carefully and unbiased, you allow yourself to harness these growth opportunities.

Ultimately, it is all about separating the destructive from the constructive feedback and understanding the core of the message.

6) Never justify yourself

Another very important step is to never justify yourself. Justification is regarded as defending oneself which signals a lack of interest. When you justify yourself, people will feel guilty and sorry for sharing their opinion with you. As a result, the conversation cannot be as constructive as it could be without justification.

7) Be curious and ask them how you can improve your weaknesses

Finally, after understanding the core of the feedback, you should stay curious and ask for advice: How can you improve? What should you do and why? Are there any tips?

This will help you to accelerate your very own progress and really make the most out of this conversation.

Have you ever been criticized and dealt well with it? What did you do and did you like it when the conversation was productive and helpful? Let me know!

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