Responding to Criticism

By Harvey Deutschendorf

Hard wired in our brains from the time humans first walked on earth is a “fight” or “flight” response. Even though our brains have evolved over the eons we still share this response with animals. It is our most basic response and was responsible for our survival at a time when we competed with wild beasts for food.

Today, however, few things are a matter of life and death, but our fight or flight response is still triggered in many situations.  One of these can happen when we are receiving criticism. The response can very according to who is giving the criticism and how much power we perceive that person having over us. The more power we see the person having, the more likely we will feel a strong flight response.  The fight response will be stronger the more we feel that the criticism is unjustified or unfair.

Whatever the situation, the fight or flight response does not serve us well when we are criticized.  Whether we feel we deserve the criticism or not, there are techniques that we can help us make the most of a situation.

Prepare yourself

Chances are we have, or will, receive negative feedback at work at some point in our lives. Like any other situation coming up we can prepare ourselves. Think of a time in the past when you received some unwanted feedback about your performance. How did you feel, and react? If you had a chance to do it over again, would you handle the situation differently? In your mind replay the scenario in a way that would result in the outcome you wanted.  If it helps, role- plays with a trusted friend, colleague, or family member. Come up with some responses that would help keep you on track that you can call up in future situations.  Come up with a word, sound, phrase, or song that will remind you of the ideal situation that you had envisioned and repeat it whenever the situation comes up again.

Wait out strong emotions

We feel before we think. To our old reactive brain, criticism will feel like we are being attacked.

It will see negative feedback as a verbal attack. This may bring out powerful emotions that can temporarily cause us to react before our thinking brain kicks in. The good news is that these strong emotions will quickly subside as our rational brains take over. If we feel these strong emotions coming up the first thing to do is give ourselves time before we react. Take a couple of deep breaths, count to ten, or do whatever you can to distract yourself. If the emotions are still highly volatile ask for a time out and tell the person you will get back to them once you’ve had a chance to collect your thoughts.  Give yourself a chance to respond, rather than react.  Rather than reacting in an emotional state, responding gives us a chance to use our thinking powers and increases the chances of getting the outcome that we want.

Feedback what you heard

A great way to start your response is to repeat back, in your own words what the other person said or what you heard them say.  Most likely the person is expecting some push back from you, perhaps anger or denial and has prepared him or herself for this. By simply giving them back what you thought they said, you will diffuse their defensiveness and make them more open to your feedback. Momentarily relieved that you are not responding in the way that they were afraid you would, the person is likely to relax a little and be more open to your feedback. When you give feedback you are not taking blame, or apologizing, you are simply making sure that you understand what the person is saying.

Overcoming our natural urge to defend ourselves and just listen

When we feel we are being attacked, as we do when we are on the receiving end of negative feedback, the last thing we feel like doing is listening.  Our natural inclination is to fight back, tell our side of the story and defend ourselves. However, if we can overcome this urge and simply listen, we have mastered a powerful tool that will help us make the most of the situation. Listening will allow the other party to feel less defensive and more open, willing to share information that they would otherwise withhold. It also makes them more open to hearing your side of the story.

Engaging and negotiating respectfully

Even though you may disagree with the feedback you are receiving you can still make it a win/win situation for both of you.  You can acknowledge that the person who is confronting you may feel that way, even though you disagree.  This moves the scenario away from someone having to be proven right or wrong, which results in stalemate as neither wants to be wrong. By agreeing that you have differing viewpoints it moves the conversation to a place where real progress is possible. If we agree with the other person we acknowledge we acknowledge their information and even thank them for bringing it to your attention. Let them know how their sharing this with you will help you in the future. If you don’t agree, suggest other ways you think would work better or ask for help if you feel you need it.