No matter how much any of us tries, we all make mistakes. And even when we’re not making mistakes, we may have other flaws or negative mannerisms that impact our work. Invariably, this leads to someone trying to help us by pointing out the error of our ways.
That’s pretty much constructive criticism in a nutshell – and it’s constructive because the purpose is to help us improve.
If we truly want to improve, we must learn how to accept the constructive criticism and use it to better ourselves.
So how do we do that?
The first thing to do when someone begins their constructive criticism is to stop: stop with the initial reaction of trying to defend yourself, stop with the emotional reaction of anger or hurt, stop with the facial actions of frowning or rolling your eyes, and stop with the defensive body language like crossing your arms.
This is hard to do and it takes practice and patience to consciously make our mind and body stop doing the things that nature and heredity have drilled into us.
So take a deep breath, relax your face and release the tension that came from out of nowhere. Now you’re ready for the next step.
This is also a hard step because the goal is to have logic overcome the emotions that are rising to the surface. Whenever we’re criticized, our first reaction is to defend ourselves. Instead, listening is the key.
Listen to exactly what is being said and be ready to repeat back what you hear. It’s as hard to give constructive criticism as it is to receive it. So you may need to listen harder to fully comprehend what someone who’s nervous is trying to say, especially if they aren’t delivering the message perfectly.
It’s also important not to interrupt while you’re listening. All kinds of excuses and clarifications will pop into your head, so you’ll need to quiet those comments and focus on what is being said.
When the person is finished, try summarizing what they’ve said to be sure you know what the issue really is.
Now say “thank you.” It will probably be both unexpected and appreciated.
You’re thanking them for taking the time to talk to you about the issue, or for pointing out an area of improvement. You don’t have to agree with someone in order to appreciate that they want to help you improve.
You’ve heard the message, you’ve thanked them for their efforts to help you be better, so now is when you ask questions.
Remember, you’re not in a courtroom cross-examining the witness, you are asking questions to get more details on the issue, to find out if it is a one-time issue or a recurring pattern, and to get their input or suggestions to improve.
For instance, you might ask why the action was wrong or if there is a policy or process you’re supposed to be following. You should ask how you can improve or what steps you should have taken instead.
A mistake is not a failure – it’s an opportunity to learn, so take advantage of this opportunity to learn a new way to deal with it.
Sometimes, the criticism is valid and you immediately recognize what needs to be done in the future. In this case, you can state the solution and again thank the person for their willingness to help you improve.
Sometimes, you may believe there are extenuating circumstances that need to be considered. In that case, you may need some time to evaluate their suggestions for improvement. It’s okay to ask for some time to think about what they’ve said and then follow up at a later date.
For example, if the criticism was that you got very defensive when a colleague rejected your idea, the recommended correction was to not be so defensive. Not being so defensive might require some reflecting on the wording you chose, the tone of voice you used – even your posture while responding.
You may even want to get a second or third opinion to see if others thought the same thing.
Again, remember that this isn’t a court case and you aren’t seeking witnesses for your defense. You’ll want to ask people for an unbiased assessment in an open way so they feel comfortable giving you the honest feedback you need.
After you’ve had the time to reflect, you should go back to the person who offered the criticism and explain the steps you’re going to take to make sure you don’t make the same mistake again.
The most important thing is to recognize that constructive criticism is truly a chance to improve yourself. Even if it comes from someone you don’t like, don’t take it personally. Instead, value the feedback and use it to make yourself a better worker and person.
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