How to Accept Criticism: Tips from Dr. Mac Powell on How to Turn Critical Feedback into Opportunities for Self-Improvement

Accepting criticism is never easy, but the truth is that constructive criticism is vitally important for improving performance. Criticism is what takes you to the next level, whether that’s at work, in athletics, or in our relationships. For many of us, though, criticism is often difficult to accept because it makes us feel the tinge of failure and disappointment.

Most of us become emotionally attached to the very healthy idea of being good-enough exactly as we are. When someone points out our flaws, we react with frustration or anger over the fact that we may have to not only look at ourselves and our flaws, but we might also have to engage in that very difficult process of change. 

But avoiding criticism isn't the answer. As Dr. Mac Powell stated, without criticism, we can never learn to grow, adapt, and improve--not just in terms of our work, but also in terms of our interpersonal relationships. There's no shame in admitting that we have to grow.

Here are three ways to hear, accept, and process critical feedback.

Redefine Criticism to Mean Feedback:
 
Criticism doesn't have to have negative connotations. Instead of viewing it as a commentary on your mistakes or what you did wrong, redefine it to simply mean feedback. Just like you have an opinion on just about everything and everyone you encounter in a day, so does everyone else. Those opinions are merely viewpoints. They aren't right or wrong. They simply exist. They are neutral.

Imagine it this way: Let's say your colleague delivers a status update with slides on a dark background. If your coworker asks you privately for feedback, you might tell her that you advise lighter backgrounds because dark colors are hard to see in a bright room, especially when the text or images are also dark.

Your criticism is valid, and you've delivered it in a kind and thoughtful manner. Your colleague can choose if she wants to act on your feedback or not in her next presentation. Your criticism was not a commentary on her as a person. It was simply feedback, which is neither negative nor positive. It's simply an opinion relayed from one person to another.

Once you see criticism as mere feedback, you'll be better prepared to separate yourself from it and think about how to interpret it. If criticism no longer feels personal--or shameful--you'll be open to critical feedback that can help you move to the next level, professionally and personally. 

Identify Useful Criticism; Eliminate the Rest:

Not all criticism is born equal. Everyone is a critic, so no matter what you do, somebody is going to be critical of you. Some of that criticism will have merit but a lot of it will be useless to you.

When you receive criticism, sleep on it before you act on it. It's easy to feel personally attacked when someone criticizes you, especially if the critic hits on something that hurts. Don't lash out. Let the criticism sit for a while. It needs to cool off, just like a pan fresh dish out of an oven. Give it time to rest before you touch it.

After you've had a night to consider what you've heard, think about whether or not the criticism is valid. Start by considering the source. Does the person who made the criticism have your best interests in mind? Might they be using criticism to mask their own insecurities? Are they informed enough to provide valid and useful criticism? Do they understand the reasons you might have had for making the decisions you did?

For example, go back to your colleague who delivered the status update with slides on a dark background. Suppose that after you advised her to use a different color scheme, she informed you that she'd been required to use a company template and could not change it. In this case, your constructive criticism, no matter how well-intended, was not helpful. You didn't have enough information to provide her useful feedback. She can set your criticism aside; it's not relevant.

In some cases, criticism will not be well-intended. Imagine a case where you deliver a training presentation on leadership strategies to a group of managers. You've done this particular presentation many times before at different companies and always had good results. This time, however, when the audience evaluations come back, you find that two of the twenty attendees found your information not at all relevant to them. It doesn’t mean that your program needs to change, necessarily. It is simply a data point to consider as you move forward.

Perhaps you'll decide that the two critical attendees made a good point: Your presentation is best aimed at audiences who are unfamiliar with leadership strategies or who come with a particular set of experiences. With that information, you can define your work more clearly and customize your presentations for exactly the right audience. 

Make Sustainable Changes:

If you do discover that criticism aimed at you is warranted, make a plan for changing your approach in the future. Criticism is only helpful if you act on it. Dwelling on it, or worse, defining yourself by it, will simply sap your confidence. A plan for sustainable change, especially in cases where change may require many small steps, will help you increase your confidence as you grow.

Imagine a situation in which your boss tells you that your work isn't meeting expectations. In particular, he or she tells you that you fail to meet deadlines and then you rush at the last minute, producing sub-par work. Your first instinct might be to dwell on the criticism. You may think about the fact that you've always struggled with deadlines. Or maybe you tell yourself that you shouldn't have gotten this job in the first place because you feel so unqualified. Neither response will help build an opportunity for growth.

Instead, if you determine that your boss is right and you really aren’t meeting deadlines, then make a plan for change. Perhaps you need to learn better project management strategies. Maybe you need to free your calendar of meetings so you have more time to work. Or maybe you are just getting too much work to ever complete anything on time and need to work with your boss to revise expectations.

Whatever your plan for remedying the problem is, remind yourself that the criticism doesn't define you. It merely says something about a particular situation in which you find yourself. Sustainable changes happen as a result of thoughtful planning. “Dwelling on criticism will only make problems worse and may even blind you from growth in a time of need,” said Dr. Mac Powell

Finally, criticism doesn’t have to change how you feel about yourself. It simply offers a window into the elements of your life that can improve. The trick is learning how to hear it, analyze it, and then develop strategies for lasting change