How to Handle Criticism Better

Gustavo Grodnitzky Employee Engagement, Organizational Culture

“That was the worst presentation I’ve ever seen! You got paid to do this presentation?! You’re a joke!”

Those were the actual words spoken to me. Verbatim. After a presentation I used to give on anger management, several years ago, in Bangor, Maine.

At that moment, I had several decisions to make:

  • How would I think about what I had just heard?
  • What would I say in response?
  • What would I do in the moment, and how would I use this information moving forward?

Those questions address the three things we have absolute control over: our thoughts, our words and our deeds.

When responding to criticism, you can take several steps to remove the sting (even if that sting is intended) and take away useful information from the criticism:

  1. Set an Intention. Before any action you take, whether it is doing a formal presentation in front of a group or interacting informally with just a few people, set your specific intention. Clearly identify what you desire for that moment and experience. Do you want to educate? Do you want to entertain? Do you want the group to have fun? Do you want to have fun? Setting a clear intention works wonders in achieving the outcome you would like to achieve – even with a less-than-welcoming audience. For the Bangor presentation, I set the intention to serve attendees by providing clarity.
  2. Accept that criticism will happen. No matter how universally beloved you may be (or want to be) and no matter how successful you become, haters will hate. The only way to avoid criticism is to be absent from the world. If you want to have influence in the world, you will always be exposed to some criticism. As a professional speaker, I was well aware that someone would likely be critical.
  3. Consider the source. Whom is the criticism coming from? Is it a close friend or a colleague or a random stranger? Is it coming from someone you trust and respect? Is it intended to help or harm? In my situation, many in the audience were mandated to be there by a court or their employer — which definitely skewed their experience.
  4. Distinguish fact from interpretation. To do this, use the “camera technique.” Ask yourself what a camera or video recorder would have captured in the moment. Remember, these devices can record only actions or behaviors, not intentions. This will allow you to consider those actions and behaviors without your interpretation of intention. In my scenario, using the camera technique allowed me to attend to the emotions being expressed — through the criticizer’s red face, loud volume, rapid speech, etc. — rather than the words being used. This is particularly challenging when words are intended to sting and injure.
  5. Understand emotionally charged criticism. Criticism that is particularly negative and personal (in other words, it seems more about you as a person than something that happened) is actually about the person who’s criticizing you. It happens when something you say or do, or even something about who you are, touches an emotional trigger for that person. It seemed pretty obvious by the person’s reaction that he was there against his will. Others who were not mandated offered a very different reaction.
  6. Find a kernel of truth. We are most sensitive to criticism that approaches the truth. We all have some layers of self-doubt or insecurity that might be valid. Criticism that touches on those is the criticism that stings the most. Finding the kernel of truth means looking at the issue identified in the comment to see if it is one your need to address on your own, on your own terms. In an effort to find the kernel of truth in the criticizer’s experience, I responded with, “I’m so sorry the presentation didn’t meet your expectations. What could I have done differently to make it better?”

Like all complex human behavior, understanding this process and using it skillfully requires practice. Taking the time to master these steps can get us from where we are to where we want to be regarding criticism.

I’d love to hear your questions or comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!