We give and receive criticism every day. Some constructive, some not so much.
It might be notes on a slide you've created, feedback on the presentation you gave, or even a comment about your Zoom background ("looks like someone hasn't cleaned up in a while").
The act of receiving criticism is vulnerable, awkward, and uncomfortable. For these reasons, many people tend to get defensive or combative. As CEO of a growing company, I view handling criticism as one of the most important skills to foster productive working relationships.
Here are a few strategies your staff can use to master the art of receiving criticism.
1. Hear the person out.
One of the simplest ways to effectively receive criticism is to listen actively. Our first instinct when we hear criticism is to immediately begin explaining and defending ourselves, but doing so actually hurts your case and shows you're not listening to the feedback.
Rather than respond quickly with an explanation, "I did it that way only because you had originally emailed me that ...," listen intently while your co-worker gets through all their feedback. Then, make it clear that you have heard their criticisms.
For example, consider responding by saying, "I understand you're upset with the way the final product turned out, specifically the art design on slides 5 through 8." Don't worry about sounding redundant; the truth is, everyone wants proof that their criticisms are being heard and acknowledged. Only opt for explaining yourself if there is a severe misunderstanding. Otherwise, 90 percent of explanations sound like excuses.
2. Leave your ego out of it.
When receiving criticism, it's easy to start thinking that you yourself are being criticized. That's not the case. Remind yourself that your co-worker is criticizing a piece of your work, or a specific behavior--not your identity. Once you separate the two, it's much easier to assign the criticism to the task at hand and not suffer any blows to your ego.
Making this distinction also makes it easier to avoid getting defensive. When you are in a defensive state, you are thinking solely of protecting yourself and deflecting shots in your direction. This state of mind is not conducive to active listening, which will make it impossible for your conversation to be successful. Remember, when a co-worker gives you feedback, you should always assume they have positive intent for providing the feedback.
3. Don't be afraid to apologize.
Apologizing is one of the strongest tools you can use when receiving criticism, especially when you're a leader at your company. Saying "I'm sorry" will change the tone of the interaction from confrontational to collaborative. An apology conveys that you have heard the person's criticism and that you're willing to accept ownership and accountability.
You can apologize without fully accepting blame. Instead of saying, "I'm sorry this is all my fault and I messed it up," frame it so that you're apologizing for the misunderstanding, "I'm sorry, I must have misunderstood you. I thought you wanted the case studies in slides 5 through 8."
Most people don't enjoy criticizing others and odds are that when you apologize for a misunderstanding, your co-worker will also apologize for not being on the same page.
It should be noted that if you do apologize, don't do so by saying, "I'm sorry you feel that way," which is the same as not apologizing and will be received as confrontational and unhelpful. Be authentic in your apology, and the person will mirror that authenticity.
4. Recognize your own emotions.
Since you are the one receiving the criticism, it's important that you gauge your own emotional state. Receiving criticism is a vulnerable act and everyone handles it differently. This doesn't mean keeping your emotions in check, but recognizing when you're not in the right emotional state to receive criticism.
Everyone has those days when nothing seems to go right, and even the slightest criticism can push you over the edge. There's nothing wrong with offering to reschedule the conversation for another date or time when you know you will be calmer and more receptive to receiving criticism.
5. Act on addressing the criticism.
Once the person has given you their feedback, you can breathe easy. The uncomfortable part is over. Now you can change the focus of the conversation from "what you did wrong" to "how you will address the criticism." Set up some concrete next steps: pick a date to go over the next draft of the presentation, schedule a check-in a month later to reevaluate your public speaking skills, and tidy up your Zoom background. Remember, the reason you received this feedback is to help you improve, not to bring you down.
It's important to note that many people are bad at politely and diplomatically criticizing. They might attack you personally ("you're out to get me") or extrapolate the criticism to a consistent behavior ("you always do this"). Do your best to separate the bad communication from the issue at hand. First, address the issue being criticized, including planning the next steps. Then, once that issue is put to bed, you can address the way in which the issue was brought up.
Handling criticism in a productive manner is an art form. The incredible thing is that if you use these techniques, you will be more consistently productive, positive, and happy--in and out of work.
Corey Weiner is CEO of Jun Group, a New-York-based company delivering full screen video, display, and rich media campaigns for Fortune 500 advertisers and driving millions of opt-in page views for leading publishers.