Updated: May 12
It’s natural to react strongly to unjust criticism, but this is rarely a wise move. Your immediate response is the most important one. It has the greatest chance for making things worse or better. I recommend this approach to overcome the natural urge to express your anger and throw a flaming bucket of gasoline onto the situation.
1. Be Cool, Ringo.
This one is pretty obvious, but it is also the one we are all most likely to screw up. Take a deep breath. When you can, sleep on it. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you.
2. Have the point repeated.
Have you ever thought of the perfect thing to say two hours later? Me too, as well as every other human being on the planet, and for me it goes all the way back to 5th grade. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to come up with the perfect reply, try this instead.
Repeat your critic’s complaints back to him/her, to make sure that you’ve understood him/her properly.
Keep calm, look them in the eye and say this: “Screw You.”
I’m just kidding, but my goodness that would feel fantastic, wouldn’t it? Instead say this: “So, what you’re saying is …” and put the criticisms in your own words. The objective here is to take the focus away from any possible personality clash and place it squarely on substantive issues.
3. Don’t escalate …
Be careful and factual and avoid the temptation to exaggerate. If your critic claims your idea will deliver mediocre results, don’t say “So what you’re saying is my strategy will ruin the company.” When you overstate someone’s case, you’ll look defensive and combative rather than a reasonable person who is genuinely looking to fix a problem by getting to the heart of the matter.
4. Help them save face …
This is one of my friend Bob’s tips. Never embarrass anyone, especially when they were wrong and you corrected them appropriately. When you handle critics properly, they sometimes feel off balance and backtrack. Should this happen, now is a good time to open a real discussion of the critique. “I can see how you might get that idea, but I probably haven’t properly explained my point/argument/idea.” This establishes respect as a key element of the conversation. You will have demonstrated that you’re willing to look at things from a different perspective, and you can see how someone might have reasonably drawn the conclusions they have.
If you’re dealing with a reasonable person, they’ll see the opportunity you have given them, and they might return the favor.
5. Move on politely …
You can’t always win when you fight city hall. And I will admit to you that the event in my life that inspired this blog isn’t an argument I can win. So when you feel you have been unfairly treated, criticized, or labeled (which was my case), then take a graceful exit.
By following this simple plan, you have established that you have understood the other person’s point and perspective and now it’s time to move on. “That’s certainly something to think about going forward, and I do appreciate the feedback.” This presents you as someone genuinely trying to do the best job possible.
6. Protect your self-esteem.
Regardless of who you are, being subjected to unfair criticism can easily be a bruising experience, so it’s important that you don’t let the experience damage your self-esteem or self-confidence.
This blog was inspired by unfair criticism and not constructive feedback.
Sometimes the criticism is unfair because it’s simply incorrect. Other times it’s unfair because it’s about something that has no bearing on how you do your job. Either way, remember that it indicates shortcomings in your critic rather than you.
There, I feel better already, and I hope you will too.