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The Best Way to Deal With Criticism

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Many of my clients deal with fear of criticism. I see it in several aspects of their lives. At work people fear criticism from their managers and colleagues so they keep quiet and don't share their opinions. They play it safe. At home people fear that they'll be criticized by their spouse or partner so they don't speak their mind. They back down when they sense conflict. In friendships people often don't have boundaries because they fear doing so will lead to criticism or they will be viewed as selfish.

Whatever the setting, it's this fear that keeps people stuck. For example, at work by not speaking up and not sharing your ideas, you'll never advance. People won't know your thoughts and will have no reason to recognize your worth and to promote you. It's safe to remain quiet. But being safe certainly doesn't make you stand out or be recognized.

Had Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg been afraid of criticism, they never would have expressed their gutsy technologically advanced ideas and we wouldn't have Facebook or all the innovations that Apple has brought us. At home people fear they'll be judged or criticized. It creates an unhealthy dynamic in the relationship where fear of criticism holds one person back. The result: They stay stuck and come to accept this unproductive status quo. In friendships, people are sometimes afraid of being criticized and ultimately rejected by a friend if their views are different so rather than express them, they just agree with their friend in order to keep the peace. This fear of being criticized leads to resentment and will ultimately make the friendship intolerable for both.

Here's how to deal with your fear of criticism:

  • Focus on what you believe in and what you did right. Be careful not to take to heart criticism or let it define you. If valid, it's a learning opportunity. If it isn't, then it's a reminder that your ideas hit a nerve and can potentially be polarizing, or maybe an opportunity to re-evaluate your approach or message. Stay focused on what's most important: your views and beliefs.

  • Speak your mind. Don't be deterred by opposing views or criticism. Doing so is avoidance and that will make you weaker, not stronger. Don't let others define you. Know what you believe in and stand firm. In my 2012 New York Times opinion piece, I took a chance and expressed my views, even though I knew they may not be well-received by colleagues. I did it because I truly believed in what I said.
  • Accept the notion that there will be some people who love you and others who don't. It's hard to please everyone. Diverse opinions are what ultimately lead to better outcomes.
  • Change your self-talk. Instead of thinking, "I can't deal with this" or "Maybe they are right about me", think, "I am strong and can roll with the punches" or "Others don't define me, I define me".
  • If the criticism is from a direct supervisor and more personal, here's the most effective approach:

    • Wait before responding. Your initial response to criticism might be emotionally-laden and likely will not help you to handle the situation in a healthy way. Pause, take a deep breath, and wait. Then when you have a clear head formulate a response.

  • Clarify. Reframe the criticism and understand it may not be about you per se, but rather something bigger. For example, if your manager talks about how outcomes are poor lately and the department has gone downhill over the last quarter, you might respond by saying, "I understand that it's important to make sure we maintain our high level of quality. I will do my best to ensure I do everything I can to uphold the standard."
  • Move on. Thank the person for the feedback, tell him or her you'll give it more thought, and then move forward. Don't dwell on it. Dwelling will only hold you back.
  • For more tips on how to effectively deal with difficult situations check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.