How to handle criticism constructively

No one likes to be criticized. However, criticism shouldn’t throw you off track. Don’t look at criticism as a devaluation of your own personality. Instead, see criticism as a chance to learn something about yourself and improve your professional or communicative skills. 

Here’s an example from current leadership coaching: The boss says: “I get the impression that this project is pushing you to your limits.”

How can you handle critical statements constructively? 

In this situation, stay relaxed and try to answer calmly. Your voice shouldn’t shake, and you should maintain your normal tone. If your feelings threaten to overcome you, mentally tell your emotions to STOP – anger or tears won’t help you, and will often be interpreted as a weakness. Divert your thoughts away from yourself and towards your conversational partner. Instead, think: “This is an interesting point of view. What exactly does he mean?” 

Ask follow-up questions to help you understand 

Answer by asking: “I don’t understand, what exactly do you mean?” Remain standing or sitting upright, and maintain eye contact. By not collapsing, you show strength and signal openness. Don’t switch your mind over to “getting through” the situation. Instead, try to listen carefully to what your partner is trying to say to you. If you can, take a couple of notes

If you perceive the critique as imprecise, keep asking questions until you understand: 

  • “What point exactly are you criticizing?” 
  • “What considerations led you to make that statement?” 
  • “Was there an occasion that made you think this way about my performance?”
  • “Do you have another duty I can take on?”

Avoid self-justification

You should never try to justify yourself, e.g. avoid statements like these: “I worked overtime again yesterday, and work more than lots of other people on this team.” This kind of statement won’t get you anywhere. You’re taking on the role of the weaker party. At the same time, you run the risk of getting caught up in your justification.

Avoid talking back. Here, I’m referring to statements that shift responsibility for the problem to your circumstances, another person, or your boss himself. One example would be this case: “Your instructions on how you wanted the project report weren’t clear either.” Even if you’re right, this might send your boss “over the edge.”

Offer solutions

You’ll appear much more confident if you consider what you could do to straighten out the issue. However, you’ll need to be able to think clearly. Suggest this course of action to your boss: come to an agreement on how you can handle a similar situation in the future. You can also ask for regular feedback. If it’s a bad time to have a discussion, tell your boss you need time to think and work through his remarks. Agree on an appointment to talk things over at a more realistic time – ideally on the following day. Don’t push the discussion. Everyone should have a chance to cool down, and this will also give you time to think about some potential suggestions for solutions.

Answer with “yes, however” instead of with “yes, but”

Even if you still don’t agree with the points of critique despite your follow-up questions, your supervisor’s opinion is still valid – just like your own. Using a “yes, however technique,” you can show your supervisor that you respect him and are attempting to understand him. Understanding someone doesn’t mean agreeing with what they’ve said. 

You should do the following: confirm his view with a “yes” and then use the word “however” to build a bridge to your own view of the situation or circumstances. Then explain your position. Here are a couple of examples:

  • “Yes, I respect that you perceive the situation in this manner. However, I would now like the opportunity to express my view as well. I’m convinced we’ll be able to find the cause...”
  • “Yes, you certainly have your own reasons for seeing the situation that way. However, your objection isn’t exactly justified. We should consider the following points...”

Avoid replacing the word “however” with the word “but.” The word “but” sounds much harsher! This is a way of negating the statement before the “but.” What’s worse, your conversation partner might feel like you don’t take him seriously, or that you’re trying to push what he’s saying ad absurdum. It’s like he’s speeding car driving towards an intersection where the light’s about to suddenly turn red. You’re going to end up with a crash.