How to Handle Harsh Criticism

In a survey, 90% of respondents said they were dumbfounded when receiving critical feedback. Here's how to react strategically.

Published: Oct 25, 2019

Asking for and getting critical feedback is one of those necessary evils: we don't like it, and yet we know at least from a logical standpoint that it can help propel our careers. But with companies doing more with fewer people and work stress levels at all-time highs, criticism-particularly when it's unexpected-can be completely jarring.

Indeed, social scientist and author Joseph Grenny found that when faced with harsh criticism, 90% of respondents said they were "dumbfounded" or "shocked." Four in 10 respondents admitted to feeling shame, while only 15% indicated the other person was out of line. What's more, research shows that people's heart rates jump as much as 50% during feedback conversations, with most of us experiencing such talks as an attack, which triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response. The result: we often don't really hear what's being said and go straight to feeling angry, defensive, or panicked.

Some of the criticism very likely had a layer of truth to it, even if it was delivered poorly.

While these responses are natural, they aren't going to spur you on in your career. But developing some resiliency to critical feedback, and taking time to analyze what's being said instead of viewing the criticism as a personal attack, can help you advance in your career.

Remain calm in the face of their ire.

While it's difficult, if someone decides to use you as a stress ball in the office, or even if you may deserve the harsh criticism, you want to try and not react. Keeping a blank face and hiding your anger or concern will ease the tension faster than if you engage in defensive dialogue, says Josh Daniel, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Eventually, the other person will cool down because he or she is unable to get a rise out of you.

Don't respond immediately.

One of the best things you can do when faced with harsh criticism is to try and break away from the conversation as quickly as possible. This isn't about avoidance; it's about taking some time to account for what your manager or colleague had to say. So listen to them, explain that you hear what they're saying, and then find a way to exit without providing any specific response to their complaints. Take a moment-whether it's an hour or 24 hours so you can work through your anger and approach the concerns calmly, says Deborah Brown, a career coach and the founder of D&B Consulting.

If you find an answer is demanded of you on the spot, one thing you can do is pull out a piece of paper and jot down some notes. This can give you time to activate your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that's in charge of higher-level thinking. That way, even on the spot, you're slowing your thoughts down to get a bit of clarity before responding.

Process the criticism.

Once you've had time to cool off, you need to process the information. Some of the criticism very likely had a layer of truth to it, even if it was delivered poorly. It's also important to understand why your manager reacted harshly. Does he or she have managers who need to see better results? Are you often tardy? Could your analysis improve? Figuring out what your manager sees from his or her point of view "pulls back the shell to get at the root of the feedback," Daniel says.

Engage with the enemy.

When you reengage with your criticizer, you'll want to give him or her an opportunity to clearly lay out the grievance. Ask questions, seeking specific examples, which "helps you be more open to the information you're hearing," says Mary Abbajay, president and CEO of Careerstone Group.

Then it's finally your turn to have a say. Provide context for why a report was late, for example. Maybe it had to go through a series of clearances first, which was out your control. Then offer specific solutions to help ensure the issue doesn't come up again. Take responsibility, Brown says, and then provide a game plan to move forward.

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