Nothing stings like criticism—even when it’s delivered with the best of intentions. Whether it comes from a manager, a colleague, or even a friend, being forced to confront something we could have done better just isn’t easy.
While the fear of feedback is understandable, avoiding criticism has its own set of risks. When you dodge or react negatively to feedback, you not only give the impression that you’re not willing to listen or improve, you cut yourself off from a valuable source of information that can help you evolve both personally and professionally.
You can’t change how everyone delivers feedback, but you can change how you receive and interpret it. And when you do, you prime yourself for better workplace relationships and professional growth.
Here are some common responses to criticism, the beliefs that fuel them, and how to reframe your reactions so you can use feedback to your advantage:
1. Response: “What do they know?”
Belief: People who criticize me are wrong or mean-spirited.
It’s natural to want to chalk up negative feedback to a simple misunderstanding or a personal insult. Discrediting the source, after all, allows you to discredit the advice—which allows you to brush off both the criticism and the potential pain it might cause. This approach might protect your pride in the short-term, but it keeps you from gaining important insight about where you have room to grow.
Reframe it: “What can I learn from a different perspective?”
Criticism becomes easier to hear when you can see it for what it truly is: a learning opportunity. You don’t have to be “wrong” or even like the source of the feedback for it to have tremendous value to you. What you can do is take the most valuable bits and use them to your advantage. Try to separate the content of the message from your emotional reaction to it by asking yourself, “What can I learn from this?” You can choose to focus on the negative, or you can try to find the lesson—and take those learnings with you to do better next time.
2. Response: “I’m just not good at ___, and I never will be.”
Belief: Feedback = failure.
This couldn’t be further from true—and it represents what’s called a “fixed mindset,” in which you believe that you’re either naturally good at something or you’re not, end of story. In fact, the most successful people are always learning and working to improve themselves. It’s what gives them an advantage over those who don’t think they can or need to change.
Reframe it: “I haven’t mastered this—yet.”
If you approach feedback with a growth mindset (where you believe you can adapt and change to reach your goals), you can learn from your mistakes and transform setbacks into opportunities. To shift into this mindset, think of a time when you received feedback—and it helped you. Maybe it made you aware of something that had completely slipped your attention or enabled you to make an important change that benefited you. Keep this in mind the next time you feel discouraged by criticism.
3. Response: “This is a bad sign. I hope my job isn’t in danger.”
Belief: Criticism should be avoided at all costs.
We all crave support and approval. So when your work, performance, or behavior is met with criticism, it might catch you off guard or make you feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or downright anxious. It can even affect our workplace relationships: Harvard researchers found that negative feedback can change the way employees shape their networks (who and how they connect with people at work) in order to avoid the sources of criticism.
Reframe it: “Every mistake can be an opportunity to grow.”
Most of the people who give you feedback have the same exact goal: Helping you do better next time. In fact, it’s a tool that you can and should actively seek out. Not only does this show that you’re open to others’ ideas, but the more you hear it, the less it stings. Here’s a three-step strategy that makes asking for feedback a habit:
1. Check In: Regularly solicit feedback from managers and coworkers on your work and performance. Ask for specifics on how you can do better.
2. Follow up: Provide those same people with updates on what you’ve done or are doing differently as a result of their feedback and advice.
3. Give thanks: When you can receive criticism from a boss or colleague without feeling attacked, you can improve your relationships by bolstering a sense of trust, gratitude, and connection. Be sure to thank the people who give you honest feedback to keep the positive feedback loop going.
The goal is not to blindly accept any and all feedback—after all, not all criticism is helpful—but to be able to hear and act on it when it benefits you to do so.
Terri Trespicio is an award-winning writer, speaker, and a long-time media expert on health and wellbeing. She was one of the early contributors to meQuilibrium, and her work has been featured on Dr. Oz, Oprah magazine, Prevention, and MindBodyGreen, among others. Find her on Twitter @TerriT.