Handling Criticism with Honesty and Grace

By Anderson, Kate | Public Management, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Handling Criticism with Honesty and Grace


Anderson, Kate, Public Management


Perhaps one of the most vulnerable of moments is when someone criticizes you--especially if you are a government professional who is supposed to serve the public and may face more criticism than many other professionals but fewer options for how to react. Further, you must respond to diverse interests and personalities, each with an agenda to pursue, from persistent critics to deadline-driven reporters, from true believers to big campaign contributors, from well-intentioned people who are naive about the process to experienced government vendors--all in a time-pressed, "photo-op" society.

You are most vulnerable when the criticizer knows you well. The scalpel of his comments can be surgically rapid and close to the bone, more damaging than the rubber hammer of a stranger's passing slight.

Yet, as the old saying goes, "What doesn't kill us can make us stronger." In fact, in these uncomfortable moments you have the opportunity to act with grace under pressure and to draw new support to yourself. Moreover, you have the best chance to learn about someone when they are expressing strong feelings because people are most revealing when offering praise or criticism.

Praise indicates what they most like about themselves, and criticism often shows what they least like or feel least competent about in themselves, which means that criticism is actually a two-way mirror. How can you respond to another's criticism with honesty and grace and actually gain new insights about yourself and the other person in the process?

First, Recognize That You Are an Animal Under Attack

Whether you are with someone you love, hate, know little of, or just met, when you first realize that you are being criticized, you will react in the same way. Your heart will beat faster, your skin temperature will go down, and you will even lose peripheral vision.

Because you feel under attack, your first instinct will be to focus on that feeling, making it more intense. You will then feel like withdrawing or retaliating. Just remember that, with either instinctual response, you are saying, "I don't like your comments; therefore, I will give you more power." Both fight-and-flight responses leave you with fewer options, not more, so attempt to express neither of these responses.

When you focus on your feelings, you are distracted from hearing the content of the other person's comments, leaving you more likely simply to react, rather than choosing how you want to act. Avoid a face-off, with an escalation of comments between the two of you. Instead, imagine a triangle of three entities: the other person, you, and the topic of the criticism. Picture the two of you staring at the criticism, the third point in the triangle, to work through the comments, rather than staring each other down and assuming that one person has to be wrong.

Look to Other People's Positive Intent, Especially When They Appear to Have None

You are at your most disarming when you compliment someone else for taking the time to give you feedback. You take the wind out of their sails. The other person might even backtrack. Yet our first instincts are to look for the ways in which we are right and others are less right. In responding to criticism, the momentum of defensive emotions builds fast.

Why? Because we mentally focus on the smart, thoughtful, and "right" things we are doing while obsessing about the dumb, thoughtless, and otherwise wrong things the other person is doing, leading ourselves to take a superior or righteous position, get more rigid, and listen less as the criticism continues.

Difficult as you might find it, try staying mindful of your worst side and of the other person's best side as you engage in responding to the criticism. In this way, you will probably be more generous and patient, thus increasing the chances that he will see areas where you might be right after all. Act as if he means well, especially if he appears not to--not for his sake but for yours. …

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