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Criticism and the Ability to Learn

Criticism and the Ability to Learn

My guess is that not many people like to be criticized. Those who do have most likely learned that listening to criticism is a good way to learn. That doesn’t mean it is easy — our egos often get in the way. We tend to see criticism as a personal attack (and sometimes that is indeed the critic’s actual intention) however being able to separate the emotional reaction and to then reflect on the actual message can lead to some significant personal and professional growth. Building on what I wrote earlier about self-confidence, the ability to listen to criticism is based on your personal confidence in your own abilities, and knowing that there can always be room for improvement. Finally, listening to others’ feedback shows them that you value what they have to say and respect their viewpoint, and provides evidence to them that you value your own growth.

I like criticism. It makes you strong. — LeBron James

The following are some thoughts on how to effectively deal with criticism from 10 Soft Skills You Need (2015, Global Courseware Inc.):

Wow, You Mean I’m Not Perfect?

It can come as a shock when we get feedback that we’re not as perfect as we might like to think. However, one of the hallmarks of a confident person is the willingness to recognize mistakes and accept that sometimes we are wrong. The key is to keep the focus on improvement, not on defending ourselves or on the reasons why we did the thing we are being criticized for. When you accept that you’re not perfect, you will have gained a valuable skill. Remember that no one expects you to be perfect, they just expect you to be the best you can. And criticism is offered in the spirit of helping you achieve excellence, not to make you feel bad.

Listen with an Open Mind

Your active listening skills come in very handy when you’re learning to accept and learn from criticism. It is tempting to defend ourselves when we receive criticism, but it is vital to resist this. When someone offers you feedback or criticism, listen with an open mind. You may not agree with all (or any) of what he or she has to say, but it is important to hear the person out. Reflect back what you understand the person to have said, and check for understanding. Answer any questions non-defensively, and do not interrupt. Listen to understand, not to respond.

Analyze and Learn

After someone has given you feedback or criticism, it is fine to ask for time to consider what he or she has said. Always thank the person for the feedback. Take time to analyze the feedback and decide what items you want to act on. Give yourself time, especially if you feel defensive. Even if you do not agree with everything the person said, see what you can draw out of the feedback that you can learn from. When you have analyzed the feedback, choose some action items that you can use going forward. You should then investigate training, mentoring, or other ways in which you can improve on in the areas of feedback that you think are valid. If you have difficulty analyzing the feedback, seek out the help of a supervisor or trusted colleague.

Clear the Air and Don’t Hold Any Grudges

Even when it’s not meant to be, criticism and feedback can feel extremely personal. When someone gives you feedback, it’s important to clear the air and not hold onto any bad feelings or grudges. Take the time to thank the person for his or her time, and for caring enough to give you feedback. Affirm the relationship, especially if the criticism has been harsh or difficult to hear. Remember that when people give you feedback, they are doing so with your best interests at heart. If you find yourself feeling defensive or holding on to negative feelings even after the feedback session, make sure to find a way to clear the air as soon as possible. This demonstrates not only that you are committed to your own growth, but that you value the relationship with the person who gave you the feedback.


Next week: How to give feedback (or is there really a thing as positive, or constructive, criticism?)

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