No one likes criticism, and most of us, whether we like to admit it or not, can be a little bit sensitive to the stuff, maybe even, dare I say it, over-sensitive. This is especially true when it comes to things that matter to us. But this is usually the kind of thing you could do with getting feedback, whether that’s positive or negative. So it’s worth finding a way of getting comfortable with hearing it.
Now, we’re not talking about criticizing people for the sake of it, or just to be mean, this is about constructive criticism, simply put, feedback.
Most of us would prefer to go about our lives and our business doing what we want or what we think is right, never giving any regard to other people’s opinions, and while I’d be the first to admit that one of the most important things you can ever do for yourself is to stop caring what other people think, this doesn’t mean that you should go through life not open to feedback.
Being open to feedback, good and bad, welcoming it even, has many advantages.
Firstly, you get to see the situation from a different perspective other than your own. If you think this doesn’t matter, just think about client or customer feedback, businesses can’t improve things they don’t know about, and nor can you.
The other thing about feedback is that you might learn about new ways of doing things, this doesn’t mean it’s the right way for you, but it might be and if you don’t listen (and try new things) you’ll never know.
As someone who’s fairly critical of myself, and of others (terrible, I know, but we all have weaknesses, and that’s just a couple of mine) I generally try to embrace feedback and constructive criticism and call it what you will. That’s not to say I’m smiling the whole time I hear it but what it does mean is that I try to shut up and listen when people give it to me and I appreciate it and try to surround myself with the type of people who will tell it to me straight.
Ultimately, it’s one of the ways we can become more self-aware and grow as people, and who doesn’t want that?
But I appreciate this kind of brutal straight talking doesn’t work for everyone, and after all, no one’s perfect, so having someone poking holes either in your character or in your good work (because that’s how it can feel sometimes), hardly seems positive and confidence building.
So, what can you do, if, like so many people you don’t take negative feedback or criticism well, or even give it for that matter because telling someone something they might not want to hear is just as important and can sometimes be just as hard as hearing it.
Here are 5 things to remember when it comes to giving or receiving constructive feedback or criticism.
If you’re on the receiving end:
1. Keep an open mind
Generally, how well we take criticism can depend on the source, and the better the relationship we have with the person giving it, the more likely we are to take it well. On the other hand, if the feedback is coming from a colleague who you don’t have such a good relationship with, you’re likely to expect bad intentions.
But this isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes, the people we are closest to and have the best relationships with may find it hard to tell us the exact things we need to hear. It’s, therefore, wiser to keep an open mind to criticism and hear it first before making any assumptions, regardless of who the messenger is.
If you know that someone’s always particularly negative and constantly criticizes everyone and everything no matter what, it might be wise to take their points on board while also seeking a second opinion.
2. Take the emotion out of it
If someone’s giving you feedback, focus on the facts. What actions or behaviors are they referring to? Try to separate yourself as much as possible, as you might have heard before, you can dislike something someone does, without disliking the person, so don’t take it as a personal attack on you.
3. Listen first
We’ve all been there, someone starts telling you something and you just don’t agree, so naturally, you pounce and start defending your position before they’ve even finished. While this is the natural urge, it sets the scene for a battle. By doing this you’re getting into fight mode and they’re likely to respond in kind. Before you know it, you’re in a full-blown argument that no one’s going to win.
Worst of all, if you become defensive every time anyone tries to give you feedback, it will soon start to dwindle. At work, your peers might just hold off giving you feedback and instead, resort to feeding back directly to your boss when things have gone too far, not good!
People might also choose to tell you what they know you want to hear rather than telling you the truth just t avoid dealing with the fallout.
4. Focus on the learning
The most important thing to focus on where criticism is concerned is what you can learn from it. Like any bad experience, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and a bit of negative feedback shouldn’t kill you.
So rather than asking yourself, why is this person out to get me, ask instead, what can I learn from this, the smallest takeaway can make the biggest difference.
I was once told by my boss that I didn’t take criticism very well, at which point I snapped and retorted “ what are you talking about, I totally do!”, I was clearly shocked to hear this because I really thought I took it well. I even sought a second opinion and asked a colleague… who agreed with my boss and another friend after that!
Clearly, I wasn’t ready to hear the truth. But when I stopped to think about it, I realized that all the while I thought I was taking it well, I was busy trying to explain myself and making excuses, which just came across as defensive. Now I actually listen.
That was a big lesson learned and it’s one of the things that’s improved my ability to take challenging feedback better. But it still stings sometimes, even if I know it’s the truth (apparently, I’m not always right and my way isn’t always the best, horrifying!)
5. Regularly ask for feedback
One of the ways I’ve found to handle criticism better is to go out and ask for it. This way, I’m ready and prepared to hear it instead of someone catching me off guard.
So if you’re not a fan of negative feedback, don’t bury your head in the sand, get out there and confront your demons! Try to seek out feedback and find out what needs improving before someone points it out to you.
But What If You’re The One Giving Feedback?
If you’re the one giving constructive criticism there are ways and means of making it more palatable, here are just some of the things to consider for that next difficult conversation:
1. Start on a positive note
For most of us, if a conversation starts negatively, the reality is that we go into fight or flight mode, and under the circumstances of a difficult or uncomfortable conversation, we’re likely to want to flight.
If you’ve got some negative feedback to give someone, start by highlighting the positives first, that way, you’ll have their attention and they’re more likely to be engaged and listen openly to the rest of what you have to say. Even if they know what’s coming.
2. Be ready with specific examples and use neutral language
Just as it’s important to focus on the facts and not take things personally when receiving feedback, when giving it, it’s also valuable to have specific examples ready to help both of you to stay objective.
The truth is when it comes to the heat of a discussion with so much going on, what was said and done can be easily forgotten, confused, or misinterpreted.
In addition to this, try to keep the words you use as neutral as possible and try to keep away from the emotive language which is likely to feel personal and cause the situation to become heated.
3. Ask questions
Even though you’re the one giving the feedback, questions can be really valuable. They give you an insight into why the other person has done, not done, said something, or behaved in a certain way, which could be the discussion that’s needed to improve matters going forwards.
Think about how you feel when someone asks you questions compared to when they tell you you’re doing something wrong. Naturally, questions being asked of you make you ask questions of yourself, reflect and consider the situation.
Using questions can therefore be a much more constructive way to approach a constructive criticism or negative feedback discussion.
(Bonus tip: asking questions when you’re on the receiving end is also really helpful. This way you can be clear on what’s being said and avoid making assumptions and misunderstandings)
4. Consider the person you’re giving criticism to
We’re all different, so when you’re giving any form of criticism, it’s worth remembering this and tailoring your approach to the conversation accordingly. If you know a certain thing is a hot button for your colleague, perhaps don’t open with this, instead, warm them up to it and bring it into the discussion later.
5. Pick the right time & place
Timing is always important. If someone is having a terrible day, it might not be the best time to lay some truth on them. It’s unlikely to land well. And ideally, pick a private place, no one wants to be criticized in front of a load of people.
Hopefully, with these 10 tips, the thought of giving or receiving constructive criticism won’t have you running for the hills next time it’s your turn in the hot seat.
The bottom line is if you want to progress in your career, and into that corner office, you’d better get used to hearing things you might not want to hear.