If Everyone’s a Critic, Why are We so Bad at Accepting Criticism?

"This is terrific, now here's everything you messed up..."

"This is terrific, now here's everything you messed up..."

No matter what industry you work in, you will be faced with criticism at some point. You've probably given some, yourself. Specifically, “constructive criticism,” but what is that exactly? And does it look and feel the same to everyone? Well, to answer question 1, constructive criticism should be helpful – specific suggestions that seek to inform and improve your overall performance. And in answer to question 2, absolutely not. Sometimes tone, word choice or overall manner can seem confrontational, rude or just plain mean, even when the person criticizing you doesn’t intend for that to be the case. Now, you can’t control how people deliver criticism, but you can control how you receive it. Here are some tips to not only help you make the most out of the criticism you receive, but also how to accept that criticism graciously.

1.    Is it negative? Or does it just sound negative?
Criticism coming from colleagues, clients, bosses or, in the case of the PR industry, media contacts, is intended to push you to learn and improve your process and performance, not make you feel terrible. It can be a valuable asset if you don’t get too caught up in the emotion connected to the criticism itself. The best way to do that is to remove the tone. Sometimes things just sound harsh. Repeat the criticism to yourself, take out any emotion connected to the criticism (real or imagined), dig deeper for the “why” of the criticism, find its value and accept it for what it is: a form of help.

2.    Treat it as seriously as you treat praise.
It feels amazing to be told how great we are at our jobs. If compliments were physical things, they’d be banners, tiaras, sashes, medals – things we can show off with pride or wear with honor. Criticism doesn’t feel good. You wouldn’t really want to wear it. It’s not comfortable. But it is exactly what you need to grow as a professional. If you take every criticism as seriously as you do praise, that means you value improvement. It means you value what you do and the people you work with.

3.    Know the difference between justified and unjustified criticism.
All criticism is not created equally. Some criticism is just an opinion. It’s irrelevant to the task at hand, or it has zero reasoning behind it other than “I don’t like this.” It is a form of criticism that is about the person giving it more than anything else. Unjustified criticism should be given no extra attention or argument, just move to the next item. Bear in mind, with rare exceptions this tip does not really apply to your clients or media contacts.

4.    Don’t take it personally.
This one is so much easier said than done. Everything above indicates the many ways criticism feels personal, doesn’t it? But the bottom line is that, particularly with professional criticism, everyone is on the same team working towards the same goal. When someone gives feedback that sounds negative, is clearly not praise, but is completely justified in terms of the scope of the client or project, it’s not about you. Yes, the idea may be yours, or the words, or the concept, but it’s not about you. It’s about the team. Which leads me to – 

5.    Accept criticism graciously.
This one is not as difficult as it may appear. If the criticism is delivered via email or even text, take a moment to consider the criticism, remove the tone and the emotion, and don’t respond right away. Take time to craft a short and pleasant response. If it happens during a meeting or a presentation, take a breath, consider the criticism, and respond positively. Don’t offer excuses or defenses when no one is asking for them. Take it all in, and say thank you. Smiling is a natural diffuser and a good way to communicate that you understand they mean to help.

Constructive criticism creates a stronger professional, and knowing how to accept it without getting upset will help you as personally as it will professionally. It feels good, knowing that people value what you do enough to let it inspire them to contribute to your success. When we can push each other to be better, we all win.