Everyone receives criticism, sometimes even when we deserve it.
But the way we respond to that criticism can either win people over or push them further away. Our responses to our critics are what actually determine what people think of us.
People’s impressions matter. Think of Proverbs 22.1: Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold. Or Proverbs 3.3-4: Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favor with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation.
You might think that the opinions of others matter very little, but if you want to succeed in business, ministry, or life you’ll have to burst the bubble of that particular naiveté quickly.
One of the most common ways we repel others is by being defensive, by which I mean adopting a posture of perceived hostility, stubbornness, or dismissal.
Here are some signs you might be defensive:
- you immediately begin forming an argument for why the person criticizing you is wrong
- you interrupt the criticism
- you speak over the other person
- you begin re-articulating your original point
- your mind tells you “they’re questioning my intelligence (or competence, or character)”
- you wish they knew how hard you worked on the product, action, or decision you made
- you make excuses
- you become sarcastic
- you refuse to consider they might be right
- you blame others and/or circumstances for the failure (“it would have worked IF____”)
- you react with anger immediately upon being questioned
- you sulk
- you begin to lecture (or preach) about the appropriate way to offer criticism and how this isn’t it
- you trivialize their concerns
- you withdraw into silence and avoidance
If you do these things, regardless of what you actually think or feel, chances are people perceive you as being:
Narcissistic. You think you’re always right and any criticism comes from other people being too stupid, inexperienced, or incompetent to understand your greatness and rightness.
Delusional. You simply cannot see why the decision you’ve made may be flawed, regardless of the logic and rationale behind the critique.
Confrontational. Your tolerance for being challenged is so low (and your insecurity so high) that you’ll take any question as a personal affront and immediately respond with guns blazing.
Pessimistic. There is a chance people may think once you hear the critique you begin to agree with it more and more until you begin attacking your own ability to make sound decisions and ultimately end up doubting everything about who you are and what you do.
There are two parts to consider in order to avoid being defensive: the outer part—our actions—and the inner part—our thoughts. The outer part is more important for getting through the conversation without damaging your reputation. The inner part is more important for getting through many such conversations without damaging your spirit. If you manage the outer part, but neglect the inner part, people will like you but you’ll hate your job. If you manage the inner part but neglect the outer part, you will feel surprised and hurt that others think you’re a jerk despite your own feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
On the outside:
Listen: When someone has something to say they need to get it out. The more you interrupt them, the longer the conversation will take. Let them say their piece, and make sure you understand exactly what they do and do not mean.
Breathe: Once they’ve finished speaking, do not immediately respond. Take a minute and run through their critique in your mind. Make sure your “playback” doesn’t intensify their meaning or catastrophize their intent. Honestly consider what they actually said.
Solve: You may not be able to solve the issue they’re criticizing, but you can solve the conversation. Bring the conversation to a close. Do this by asking for time to consider what they’ve suggested, possibly even offering to meet another time and talk it over.
Objectify: Don’t take the criticism personally, even if it was meant to be personal. Take a step back from your vantage point and imagine yourself leveling those same criticisms at the issue in question. Imagine what it would take for you to give those criticisms weight.
Respond: Once you’ve considered the argument and the critique itself, respond thoughtfully to the information. Do not react immediately. Do not heighten the emotionality of the exchange. If nothing else, play for time.
On the inside:
Critique the critique: Look for the evidence that supports the “thesis” of the complaint. Maybe it’s warranted, or maybe not. Maybe the evidence is anecdotal or outdated or misinterpreted. No matter what, knowing how the person arrived at his or her conclusion will give you grace for the conclusion that you must be criticized.
Remember your audience: Not everyone is going to like everything you do. That’s fine. Just be sure your intended audience receives the message you mean to convey. If the complaint comes from somewhere else, don’t weigh it too heavily. For people who hate this kind of thing, this is exactly the kind of thing they’ll always hate.
Remember your mission: Not everything you do is meant to be enjoyed. In fact, sometimes deliberately provocative action is taken and we should anticipate criticism before it ever arrives. In this case, count the criticism as a mark of success, not failure. Rather than asking: Do I like what I’ve got? Ask yourself: Did I achieve what I wanted?
Look for the grain of truth: Nine times out of ten, there is something you can learn from even your worst, least-generous critics. If you’re serious about personal development, you’ve got to figure out how to incorporate their perspectives.
Practice forgiveness: I always hate people who criticize me. A little. For a little while. I used to pretend it didn’t bother me, since the criticisms were usually miniscule and infrequent. But then I realized that all the criticisms were piling up inside me, poisoning me, and I carried a wad of resentment with unclear origins. Every critic needs to be forgiven every time, even if it doesn’t seem worth the time it takes to name your hurt, confess your anger, and pray for grace. But you have to, every time, or you’ll die inside.
If you can manage your reactions, people will think you have listened well. They’ll feel heard and respected. They may not change their minds about that one particular issue, but you have already begun to win them over. Gradually, people will form an accurate opinion that you are:
Show them you’re willing to learn. You want to see past your own blind spots and limitations, learning from others about the full implications of your process and decisions.
Show them you’re eager to grow. You want to further develop yourself and your ability to lead and make sound decisions. It’s not just that you want to make a better decision in this instance, but that you also want to become a better all around decision-maker.
Show them you’re concerned with making things better. They’ll know you want to make the best decision possible based on what benefits the greatest amount of people across the widest stretch of time.
The more they realize you’re that kind of person, the less you’ll have to defend yourself about all the little stuff you’re fighting now.