Everyone has blind spots—areas you don’t realize you need to work on. Through criticism, people can let you know your shortcomings and offer suggestions for how to improve.
But receiving criticism can be hard!
Criticism may make you feel misunderstood or unappreciated, but it is important to be able to respond to criticism in a productive way.
And not all criticism is created equal. Let’s start by defining the 2 main types of criticism and then get into 6 strategic ways to respond to both.
2 Types of Criticism: Constructive vs. Destructive
There are 2 main categories of criticism—constructive and destructive. The key difference between constructive and destructive criticism is the critic’s intention behind their comment.
Constructive criticism can be a valuable way to learn from others and your mistakes. It has the intention of helping you out. On the other hand, destructive criticism typically comes from a desire to emotionally damage.
Both can sting a little bit at the moment, but constructive criticism has 3 main components, according to researchers, that help it stand out:
- It’s compassionate. Criticism can be hard to receive, but compassionate feedback focuses on the actions rather than the individual’s identity.
- It’s specific. There are concrete ways the person can improve in the criticism.
- It’s a match. It comes from someone the individual respects. And the action is something the individual is willing to improve on.
Constructive feedback typically offers direction for how to move forward and change.
For example, if your boss told you, “I’ve noticed you’re struggling to meet deadlines. I know you take your job seriously, and I’ve seen you do great work. I think you could benefit from some time management strategies—no worries, it’s not as hard as it sounds. For the next week, why don’t you turn off notifications on your email after lunch every day? I know the afternoons are where you really can focus. Use this time to zone in on your most important projects. If this doesn’t help, we’ll try something else.”
Notice how all three components are present. The feedback is compassionate, specific, and a match. There are concrete action steps for how to improve moving forward that will hopefully help the individual improve.
On the flip side, destructive criticism would sound like, “You missed your project deadline. You’re failing at this job.”
Realistically, very few bosses give feedback this way. But if this were to happen, it would be discouraging and unhelpful. They’ve given you no actionable steps for improving and have attacked you personally.
6 Ways to Respond to Destructive Criticism
Unfortunately, you will face times when people give you destructive criticism. This is when their criticism is overly personal, does not offer hope of improvement, and/or may not be accurate.
Here are some ways to respond to destructive criticism and move past it.
Be direct and address the issue
While it can be helpful to learn how to brush off the negative comments of people around you, it may be necessary to have a conversation with the person about their behavior—especially if you notice it becoming a pattern.
In this clip from the British version of The Office, we see Neil Goodwin handling David Brent’s destructive criticism. He does this through 5 main steps:
- Goodwin pulls Brent aside for a private conversation—Instead of having an uncomfortable conversation in front of everyone, Goodwin chooses to have privacy so nobody else is involved.
- Goodwin addresses the awkwardness—He acknowledges how uncomfortable it is that they were formerly colleagues, and now he is Brent’s boss.
- Goodwin clearly defines boundaries—He tells Goodwin he will not be spoken to disrespectfully by anyone, especially not in front of other team members.
- Goodwin offers a better way to have these conversations in the future—Challenging conversations sometimes need to be had. Goodwin shows that he understands this by offering Brent an alternative to destructive criticism. They can have private, constructive conversations moving forward.
- Goodwin makes sure Brent understands—He asks Brent to verbally confirm that he has heard and understood what he is saying.
These types of conversations can be challenging. It is uncomfortable and sometimes scary to tell someone you feel disrespected by how they’ve spoken to you. However, in the long run, this can help you create a space you feel safe and able to thrive.
Recognize the context
People often criticize harshly because of other stresses in their own life. If you’re close to this individual, try asking them how they’re doing.
Is there another reason they are lashing out? The cliche “hurt people hurt people” may be true in this case. Find out! You can do this by being empathetic. Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions and experiences of others. This can help you understand that their criticism may be a part of a bigger stress or challenge their experiencing.
Here are some ways to practice empathy:
- Eliminate distractions as you talk with the person to show them they have your full attention.
- If you struggle to get along with someone (like a challenging customer or an overly chatty colleague), think of 3 things you like about them. This will help you have a more positive view when you talk to them.
- Encourage them to share more with you by allowing silence or using phrases like “go on” or “and then?”
For more help building empathy, read our article on 15 Habits of Highly Empathetic People (Empathy Guide).
If the criticism comes from a stranger, just keep walking, and remember that their opinion of you is not important.
Action Step: Think back on the last time someone was critical of you. Take a moment to consider the circumstances. Was it close to a mealtime, and could the person have been hangry? Did they just come out of a meeting that may have gone poorly? Could they have been going through a challenging family situation?
You will likely never know the answer.
However, broadening your mindset can help you remember that their comment was about more than just you.
Don’t take it to heart
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. However, the sooner you learn to brush off destructive criticism, the sooner you can move on with your day and enjoy the good things in the world.
Frederik Imbo gave a TED talk on not taking things personally. He opens up and is vulnerable to the pain of criticism. As a referee, he’s faced many harsh critics and has learned to overcome this pain through the following points:
- It’s not about me.
- Establish what you know to be true about yourself so that you will recognize ungrounded criticism.
- Be empathetic to yourself and know that you may not brush off criticism overnight when you get hurt by something.
You can watch his whole TED Talk here:
Brush it off with a laugh
If someone is being critical of you and personally attacking you, deflect with a bit of humor. Sofia Vergara does this phenomenally. Like many celebrities, she often gets teased in interviews. One of her go-to tactics is to say “whatever” in an exaggerated tone.
In an interview with Jay Leno, Leno is teasing Vergara about gaining weight on vacation. Although it’s an uncomfortable conversation, she sticks with saying “whatever” to brush past the comments and make the audience laugh.
Here’s the interview clip:
If you’re not naturally super funny, check out our article, How to Be Funny: 7 Easy Steps to Improve Your Humor.
As much as you might not want to admit it, science shows that negativity does affect you. Whether it’s a sassy comment or unfair criticism, it’s important to recognize and replace it with something positive.
Researchers have found that people do their best work when they receive 5.6 positive comments to every negative comment. When you’re on the receiving end of destructive criticism, give yourself a pep talk.
Action Step: Keep a note in your phone that you fill with things you like about yourself.
Use the following categories and try to find a minimum of 3-5 things you like about yourself in each category. Then, when someone says something nasty, pull out your note and read through the things you want about yourself in that area.
- Workplace accomplishments
- Personal growth
- How I show up for and care for my loved ones
- My interests or hobbies
- Obstacles I’ve overcome
- People who love me
- Cool things I’ve done
Use these strengths to immunize yourself against negativity.
Avoid destructively critical people
Sometimes you just have to minimize the time you spend around critical people. Destructive criticism can be an unnecessary drain on your energy.
Depending on the relationship, you may be unable to avoid a critical individual entirely. However, sometimes you can distance yourself from them in a way that helps your well-being.
Does a friend you meet up with regularly have negative things to say about your children? Stop meeting up with them.
Or maybe a colleague you work with is destructively critical of how you do your job. Bring it to a supervisor and ask if you can work more closely with other individuals.
Even if you can’t completely remove the individual from your life, brainstorm ways to minimize the amount of time you spend around them.
There are 7 main types of toxic people to watch out for:
- The Conversational Narsicist
- The Straight Jacket
- The Emotional Moocher
- The Drama Magnet
- The JJ
- The Fiber
- The Tank
Read our article 7 Types of Toxic People and How to Spot Them to learn more about each and how to deal with them!
6 Ways to Respond to Constructive Criticism
Receiving constructive criticism may sting, but remember that it’s intended to help you grow. Try not to discourage people from giving this type of feedback. Ultimately, it is helping you on your journey of self-improvement.
Here are 6 ways you can respond to constructive criticism.
Thank the intention
When someone offers you constructive criticism, they intend to help you. But just because they have a good intention doesn’t mean the feedback is necessarily appropriate or helpful.
You don’t have to accept their constructive criticism just because they offered it.
For example, if someone at the gym comes up to you and recommends you add more weight to the squat rack, they may not know that you are taking a recovery day. Or, if a client lets you know that they’d rather their logo design look different, you might tell them that it’s important their logo looks good in multiple contexts.
Let the person you’re speaking with know you appreciate their desire to help you. Whether the goal of their criticism is to help you improve at your job or increase your charisma,
Here are some ways you can do this:
- “Thanks for your honesty. I appreciate the feedback.”
- “Thank you for letting me know how I can improve. I think I’ll wait to implement any changes until I’ve had a chance to discuss my performance in my next one-on-one with my boss.”
- “I appreciate you bringing your concerns up with me. I know how challenging it can be to offer feedback.”
Evaluate the input
Constructive criticism is someone’s opinion. While their desire may be to help you, evaluating if you agree with what they’ve said before making significant changes is good.
You may even get conflicting pieces of constructive criticism. For example, one person may tell you they wish you spoke up more in a group setting, while others may say you tend to overshare.
When you receive constructive criticism, take a step back and ask yourself:
- Do I think what this person has said is true about me?
- Do I agree that what they’re suggesting is the best way to improve this aspect of myself?
For example, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was told, “Children just aren’t interested in witches and wizards anymore,” by an anonymous publishing agent in 1996 who rejected her books.
Rowling must have evaluated this feedback and decided she disagreed. She continued sending her story about Harry Potter to other publishing agents.
You don’t need to accept every piece of constructive criticism blindly. There are times when the individual giving the advice may be wrong.
Avoid anger & cultivate calm
Although constructive criticism can be one of the best ways to improve your weaknesses, it can still be discouraging to hear that you’re not doing things perfectly. Your immediate reaction may be to get defensive or lash out.
As much as possible, avoid doing this.
For a moment, put yourself in the place of the person offering constructive criticism:
Your friend has a blind spot you think you can help them overcome. You consider how to phrase your feedback so that it is as encouraging as possible and has clear takeaway points. You’re a bit nervous, but you work up the courage to give your honest feedback.
The person gets angry and begins lashing out at you. They tell you you’re wrong, make hurtful comments, and then leave.
How likely would you be to give them constructive criticism again? Probably not very likely.
Constructive criticism can trigger our fight-or-flight response. Some symptoms of this are a racing heart, sweaty palms, and an inability to think what to say.
If you start feeling this way, take a breath and wait a moment before responding.
As you’re breathing, think of the big picture. Remind yourself that nobody is always perfect, and it’s in your best interest to hear honest feedback from those around you.
Action Step: If you tend to go into fight or flight when you hear negative feedback, try breathing mantras to prepare yourself ahead of time to stay calm and collected. Use them to remind yourself that receiving feedback is in your best interest.
Here are a few mantras you could try out:
- “I want to grow and embrace the growing pains.”
- “My productivity does not define my identity.”
- “I choose to be receptive to challenges that come my way.”
Spend a few minutes in the morning practicing the mantra of your choosing. Connect it to your breathing by saying half of the mantra while inhaling, pausing for a moment, and then saying the second half while exhaling.
When someone offers you constructive criticism, and you feel yourself going into fight or flight, take a moment to inhale, exhale, and remind yourself of your mantra.
To learn more about the science behind meditation, read our article 14 Amazing Benefits of Meditation That Can Actually Rewire Your Brain.
Give them a notice
Sometimes, all you need is a heads-up before receiving criticism.
For example, you may say, “I appreciate you coming to me with this concern. If I’m honest, I feel caught off guard by your feedback, and as a result, I don’t feel like I’m able to navigate this conversation well. Do you think in the future, you could let me know that you’re upset about something I’m doing 10 minutes before we talk about it? I feel like I’m shutting down emotionally and think having a heads up would help me be more present.”
For a conversation involving constructive criticism to go well, both parties must be fully present and ready to give and receive feedback positively. By telling someone this, you’re letting them know how to maximize the potential of a good conversation in the future.
Turn destructive into constructive
One way to handle destructive criticism positively is by making it constructive. You can do this by asking questions that lead to actionable points.
Here are several examples of how you can make destructive criticism constructive:
|If someone says||Try asking|
|“This is terrible. You’re bad at your job.”||Are you able to prove your claims with any data? I think that would be helpful before we decide whether or not to make the changes you are asking for.|
|“This was the most disorganized event I’ve ever been to. They were never like this when I was in charge.”||What do you feel a better way of organizing this event would be?|
|“You’re a poor leader.”||I understand you’re upset with how I make decisions right now. Can you offer me any research or examples of better ways for us to operate?|
Asking questions can help the person criticizing you realize their judgment is sometimes unfounded. It also shows that you have an open mind and are willing to change where needed.
Enlist accountability to help you change
Make changes! If the criticism is constructive, take it to heart and work on making changes. If you’re having a hard time with this, consider asking a friend or family member to be your accountability partner.
An accountability partner is someone who knows what you’re working on and will periodically check in to see if you are continuing to move toward your goals.
For example, if your doctor recommends exercising at least 3 times a week, you could ask a friend to text you periodically and ask how your workouts are going. This way, you’ll know that you must tell them if you skip too many days. This alone can help you feel motivated to leave your house and go for that morning walk.
How Can I Handle Criticism Gracefully?
To help you handle criticism gracefully, start by setting your intention before the critics ever start talking. This way, your initial reaction can be more intentional and less hot-headed when you encounter critical comments.
One way to navigate criticism with grace is by asking questions. For example, if a team member comes to you and says, “It’s your fault that this marketing campaign doesn’t have the results we wanted.”
You could respond by saying, “I think we’re all disappointed in how the campaign performs. Do you have any specific areas or stats you could show me to support your claim? Since we all work together as a team, that feels like a pretty big accusation.”
One of two things can happen here. Either they have concrete stats that support what they’re saying, and you are at fault. If this is the case, you can take responsibility and try to find a way to fix the problem.
However, what is more likely, is that the rude person won’t be able to back up their harsh criticism. Then, you can ask them to please not speak to you in this way again.
On the other hand, if you feel the person is heated and might verbally attack you more, you may find it best not to respond. Then, if you are teammates, you can bring up the situation with your boss, who can help navigate the situation.
If you’re the boss, you can wait to talk to them once they’ve cooled down.
Action Step: Set your intention to handle criticism gracefully! Researchers have found that when you set an intention ahead of time, you’re more likely to succeed in responding how you want.
If you know what type of criticism you may face, be specific. For example, suppose you’re heading to a family gathering and know your great-aunt is often critical of your relationship status. In that case, you may set the following intention:
“If Aunt G criticizes me for being single, I will smile and say, ‘I appreciate that you want what’s best for me. I’m currently enjoying investing in my career and taking advantage of the flexibility that singleness offers me.’”
Or, maybe you’re heading into a performance review and know you’ve had a rough month at work. Then, your intention may be:
“If my boss tells me she’s disappointed with my performance this month, I will be humble and acknowledge that I haven’t been at my best. I will let her know I have had a hard time focusing because of aspects of my personal life and will then ask if she has any resources she can offer me to help improve focus.”
More general intentions could look like this:
- If someone criticizes my timeliness, I will apologize for being late and thank them for their patience.
- If I am criticized for my new haircut, I will cheerfully say, “I know it’s not for everyone, but I like how I look with short hair.”
- If someone honks at me in traffic, I will keep driving safely and calmly.
How Can I Handle Harsh Criticism?
Harsh criticism can be challenging to handle. It’s easy to get discouraged, but harsh criticism is often best to ignore. The critics rarely know everything going on in your life and do not have your best interest at heart.
Many celebrities face harsh criticism, whether for personal life decisions or their career.
The Beatles were not unfamiliar with harsh criticism. Many critics called their music bad and openly discussed not understanding their popularity.
One critic, George Dixon, whose criticism was published in the Washington Post in February of 1964, said, “Just thinking about the Beatles seems to induce mental disturbance. They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning, yet people hereabouts have mentioned scarcely anything else for a couple of days.”
That’s pretty harsh.
So how did the Beatles respond?
They didn’t. They kept doing their own thing and now count among the most influential artists of the 20th century.
Sometimes ignoring harsh criticism is the best response. People may just be looking to get a rise out of you. If you don’t give them the response, they’re looking for. They may stop criticizing.
How to Handle Criticism From My Boss?
Handling criticism from your boss can vary based on how they approach the conversation. If you work for a good boss, they likely intend to help you through their criticism. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest if you get the feedback you need to improve at your job!
Hopefully, your boss’ criticism will be constructive and include how you can improve moving forward.
However, sometimes the feedback you get from a boss is not constructive. In those instances, try using one of the following responses:
- “I’m sorry my work was not satisfactory. I’d love to avoid this in the future, but I feel a little lost. Could you give me concrete examples of what you’re looking for and how I can improve moving forward?”
- “I understand that you’re upset with my sales numbers. Could you shadow me for a few hours and give me tips on how to improve?”
- “Thank you for your feedback. I’m still unclear on how you would like for me to change in the future. Could you offer me some guidance?”
This can help criticism become more constructive. It can also help your boss realize they were not being clear in the first place and help them improve their communication.
Criticism in a Nutshell
When receiving criticism, it is important to be grounded in your identity. That way, when destructive criticism comes your way, you’ll know it doesn’t define you. And when you receive constructive criticism, you’ll be able to recognize it and make necessary changes.
“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames, they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.”—Margaret Thatcher
- Discern if it’s constructive or destructive. Start by identifying what type of criticism you’re getting. This can help you decide how to respond. Constructive aims to help you. There are typically action steps for how to change moving forward. Meanwhile, destructive criticism is not helpful. It is discouraging and sometimes malicious.
- Learn from constructive criticism. Embrace humility and gratitude when you receive constructive criticism. Let the person know you recognize how challenging bringing up shortcomings can be and that you appreciate the opportunity to improve. Then, evaluate if you agree with their input and want to incorporate it into your life.
- Ignore the critics and keep on keeping on. The Beatles wouldn’t have had the same impact on the music industry if they had let the critics determine their trajectory. Sometimes you just need to keep doing the next right thing rather than getting caught up and worried about what everyone else is thinking.
If you’re struggling to recover from criticism, read our article How To Believe In Yourself (And Succeed In Life!).