8 Tips for Dealing Calmly with Criticism. (Which I Find Very, Very Challenging.)

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

I have a very hard time being criticized, corrected, or accused – even of the smallest mistakes – and I react very angrily. I struggle to respond calmly and constructively — even when it’s something like my six-year-old saying, “You forgot to put my library book in my backpack.” It’s all I can do not to snarl, “Why didn’t you remember your library book?” Zoikes, how I try to be more and easy-going! Here are some of the strategies that I try to use to accept criticism.

1. Listen to what a critic is saying. Really listen, try to understand that point of view, don’t just nod while you formulate your retorts.

2. Don’t be defensive. This is the toughest step for me. With my writing, for example, I always have to take a deep breath before reading an edit letter or meeting with an editor, to remind myself, “I welcome criticism. This person is helping me. I want to hear how to improve my book/article/post.” Act the way you want to feel! That’s my Third Commandment. It’s really uncannily effective; acting friendly and eager to learn makes me feel friendlier and more eager to learn. Along the same lines…

3. Don’t fire back by criticizing your critic. Your comments will just sound defensive, and you’ll escalate the exchange. This urge is very difficult to resist, because the impulse to justify and attack is strong when you feel criticized, but it isn’t helpful, and it certainly isn’t effective.

4. Delay your reaction. Count to ten, take a deep breath, sleep on it, wait until the next day to send that email…any kind of delay is good. I find it’s much easier to apply this rule when I’m responding in writing. I’ve trained myself to think long and hard before hitting “send” or “enter.”

5. Explain honestly the reason for your actions. Sometimes it’s tempting to re-characterize your actual feelings, actions, and motives. Usually, though, that just complicates things more. It becomes impossible to have an honest exchange.

6. Admit your mistakes. This is extremely effective. When I got my first job, my father told me, “If you take the blame when you deserve it, you’ll get the responsibility.” I’ve found that to be very true. Difficult, but true. Admitting mistakes is the first step, then…

7. Explain what you’ve learned. If you can show a critic that you’ve learned something, you prove that you’ve understood the criticism and tried to act on it. That, itself, usually mollifies critics.

8. Enjoy the fun of failure. Re-frame the issue entirely to embrace criticism. Fact is, trying new things and aiming high opens you to criticism. I tell myself to Enjoy the fun of failure to try to re-frame failure and criticism as part of the fun. Otherwise, my dread of criticism can paralyze me.

What am I overlooking? Have you found any other strategies that work for you?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

11 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I really do think criticism is just an inner reaction in the way it is taken as being such, I would have told the six year old I wasn’t finished reading it, just to see the expression. I do believe in owing up to you mistakes and taking responsibility for them, if not you then who else should it be?
    Our critics can be our greatest assets, they push you to grow and expand your thinking and the way you look at life. After all, we are the one defining them as critics. You can only fail yourself. Just maybe, if life if producing too many critics, we are allowing ourselves to accept and absorb the criticism. I think the one I would add would be “Let it go”.

  2. avatar Dianne Lopp says:

    I think this is great advice—but it’s all predicated on the premise that all criticism is inherently helpful or even factual.  I think these tips are great for a controlled setting like an edit or job review—what I would like help with is the social situation or familial get together when someone says something nasty and critical—how should that be handled?  I hear all the time to ignore—but I don’t necessarily think that’s right.  I also don’t think we as a society acknowledge that people who say nasty things get a real charge out of doing so and aren’t typically going to stop of their own accord.

  3. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Gretchen . . . . In my own experience, I have far more trouble in dealing with women – well, some women.  In a professional setting, I have found the tone of the conversation kept high and what you might consider “criticism” I have found instead a learning experience which I have been able to handle with what I call “give and take”.  If I respect someone – his maturity, his background, his knowledge – I use questions in return to make it a learning experience.  I show appreciation when – indeed – I have come away with gained knowledge on how to do something better.  We part as friends — or I do everything to see we do.  Next time is easier.  Face it, I don’t know everything and I certainly want to always continue learning.  It is up to me to pick and choose the lessons learned to take to heart.

    Not always, not everyone, but women – in professional and definitely in personal life — often seem to “go for the heart”.   I always think of it likened to the feeling of being knifed in the back.  Inwardly, I seem to see a competition between women — and again I am saying “some women” – but the same women every time.  The negativcity, the pursed lips, the strong statement prevail.  “This is how I would do it” is said in a haughty way, but more often without the “give and take” of a normal conversation.  I learn fast.  I learn to avoid those women like the plague as rarely is there not much need for so much negativity.  On the personal level,we soon find that we can and should pick and choose our friends, keeping our distance from the “knifers”.  As Dianne (above me) said:  there are people out there that get a real charge out of cutting others apart.  It seems part of their personality and you soon learn to stay clear.  Often, I look at it as a power play — a very sad look at a person who feels they have to say the last word.

    And so – constructive criticism I actually welcome – well, most of the time.  I want to think, I want to learn, I want to grow.  But I think it is wise not to call it “criticism” – which hurts – but a meaningful discussion that you may profit from in all sorts of ways. . or discard if you see fit.

    • avatar D C says:

      Joan, I truly get that woman vs. woman thing you talk about.  I have usually preferred working with men.  I grew up with 3 brothers, My dad had all brothers.  I married a man with all brothers, who works in sports — more men.  I have found, personally, that I am very comfortable talking with men, and that the more women there are in my office, the nastier a place it is.  And I think that’s really sad.  The saddest part is that women who sabotage each other in the work place are doing themselves no favor, because the men, who are usually in higher places, see it, take note of it, and use that information.  And usually not in ways that help a woman out. 

  4. avatar Lila says:

    Dianne and Joan are right – sometimes “criticism” is not constructive, nor meant to be; sometimes you just have a petty person in the office who gets their jollies by putting others down and back-stabbing them, or perhaps thinks the way to get ahead is to tear others down.

  5. avatar Linda Myers says:

    More times than not, people who seem to thrive on being critical of others borderline as bullies who empower themselves by attempting to demeanor others. Covering their own insecurities by dominating everything around them. People like that I do not have any respect for or choose to be around. I do respect those such as Gretchen, who have taken the time to decide how we can keep life comfortable in these circumstances. I have also seen in my own family this past year, how one person being who they are and saying words another found overly critical creates rifts lasting months. Another persons off the cuff remark given to someone who already feels wounded in that area can be seriously damaging in how the remark is internalized. Considering the source of the speaker while be critical can change the affect of the criticism.

    • avatar Susan G says:

      I agree with Linda. Many toxic messages like bullying and harassment are delivered under the guise of constructive criticism. It’s difficult to sort out in the moment.  In general, constructive criticism feels all right– it’s is expanding and illuminating. If words feels like a gut-kick, it probably is the poison stuff.
      Critics: If the person you’re advising “can’t take criticism,” look at what YOU’RE doing wrong.

  6. avatar spinneo says:

    As I writer, I struggle too with criticism.  Sometimes the critic is correct in her opinion but poor at delivering it.  Those are the most difficult criticisms to take– they take the longest to sink in.  But I’d agree that it’s worthwhile, before rejecting a criticism out of hand because it has been poorly delivered–to wait until the sting disappears, and then consider once more whether the criticism is relevant.  When I’m able to do that, sometimes I am able to truly learn something important.

  7. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I have no issue with someone who can show me how I might do something better or come across as more effective. I can learn from the experience. However, my blood pressure rises when someone runs me down for their own inadequate performance. I get that routinely from a few family members who never help but feel free to run their mouths about how I handle my life. I have dropped friends who can never find a positive word to say about anyone. I believe that what you put out in life is what you get back.
    Some criticism is simply a difference in our life experiences. I grew up learning multiple ways of doing things because we lived overseas and in the US. We adapted to what worked for us at the time. Some people have rigid standards of doing things that they don’t feel comfortable parting ways with. Anyone who does things differently is “wrong” in their opinion and open to correction. I can roll with this because it is often fear based on their part.
    Our life experiences also shape the way we see things and react to them in conversation and in print. We all assimilate the way we see things based on the values we grew up with along with our education and work experience. I have run across expert opinions that I disagree with simply because the person rendering them may have scholastic experience but no practical expertise. Technically they are right about what they say even if the advice doesn’t fly in a practical world. The same is true for someone who may have a job in a field that is changing. Their experience is valid and right for what they know or have kept up with. New data could shed a different way of looking at things. My way of coping with critics is to remember that none of this will matter eventually. Who knows I might eventually agree with my critics.

  8. avatar Maggie W says:

    I don’t believe in constructive criticism. Criticism is just that… criticism . My husband and I are business owners. Most of our employees have been with us for years, and we value their friendship and expertise. We depend on it and are very fortunate to have them in our business family. When there is a new hire, he/she is encouraged to always share opinions and new ideas but only in a civil tone. There will be no raised voices. If anyone walks out of a meeting, he needs to keep walking. We will not permit undermining and/or pettiness to take the focus off the business at hand. Many people are thin skinned and are affronted far too easily by taking small issues to heart. This I have a problem with. You are an adult. Get over it and get on with the business at hand.

  9. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    It is difficult for Mr. Wow to accept criticism because I always think—“but of course, of course I’m wrong!”  And then I get my back up a bit. (I’ve been found out!)  More often than not, however, I benefit from being shown the error of my ways. 
    All of Ms. Rubin’s advice is excellent.  However, how to cope with criticism–even if it is correct–dealt with a heavy hand?  And I don’t mean, as Maggie W. indicates, professional, civil–but no-nonsense criticism.  I mean the kind that is unnecessarily “honest” or given in a tone that can only serve to demean the one who is being criticized.  Nobody comes out a winner there.