5-minute read

It’s coming. At some point in your career you’ll be receiving and delivering a less than good professional assessment. It’s an important moment for all involved. Delivered thoughtfully, with good intentions, criticism can help you or a colleague improve and grow. Delivered badly, it can leave anyone angry, demoralized or confused. Offering and receiving criticism that produces a positive result is a shared responsibility.

It’s important to get it right!

The dictionary offers two definitions of criticism.

  1. Disapproval of someone based on perceived faults or mistakes
  2. Analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work

Most think of criticism at work with the “disapproval” definition. But if you can shift your thinking toward the second definition, “analysis and  judgment,” you’ll move away from the negative emotion associated with “disapproval” towards positive action that often follows “analysis”.

Criticism can come from anywhere. It can be a reaction to a specific event, a work product or part of a performance review. Sometimes it catches you off guard.

Regardless of how the criticism is offered, fair or not, how you respond in the moment is what your boss and colleagues will remember.

[Last month’s post focused on in the moment responses to a “Career Storm”]



There are things you can do now to make this difficult conversation easier. When things are going smoothly, talk with colleagues and your boss about the best way to send to receive critical feedback.

Then, when difficult conversations arise, you’ve got a starting point for a productive talk.


Understanding the Source

Considering the underlying motivations and personality of your critic should guide you, in the moment and beyond, towards the best response.

Is it coming from a colleague you trust and respect?

Your boss?

A competitive colleague?

Someone who always finds the negative side to a situation?

From a trusted colleague, the criticism is probably fair and intended to be constructive. So take a deep breath and hear them out. If you buy into their observations, schedule time to address the issues. Even if you don’t agree at the outset, a working session may change your mind. Staying open to further conversation builds your reputation as an objective and thoughtful colleague.

If the source is an intrinsically negative or competitive colleague, don’t let the criticism become destructive to your working relationship. Here’s how to diffuse a charged situation in the moment.

1) Repeat the Criticism. “What I heard was…” and put the criticism in your own words. Perhaps they said it wrong, or you misheard the point.

2) Be Factual and DON’T Exaggerate. This forces your critic to listen and either agree with or refute the claim. Phrases like “This was the thinking behind…” or “From my perspective…” encourages additional conversation and focuses on the facts, not your reaction. You may even change their point of view.

3) Ask for More Detail. Vague criticism like “I didn’t like your last presentation” or “You’re not a strong enough manager” doesn’t explain where the real issue lies. Without examples or more detail it’s difficult to create an improvement plan.

Ask for details.

4) Try to See Their Side. This is probably the last thing you want to do, but try it anyway. “From where you sit, I can understand why you had that reaction.” If your critic is just looking for a fight, this approach takes personality differences out of the equation and can defuse the situation.

5) Invoke “Shared Responsibility”. It’s easy to criticize. It’s harder to change. Declaring that you want their help to improve can lead towards a more positive and productive relationship, or will just make them shut up and go away.

Either way, acknowledging that you respect the other person’s position moves you to unemotional ground where you can work on solutions.

If it’s your boss, listen from a receptive and unemotional place.


Here are some ways to get to that place quickly,

1) Start with “Thank You” By showing gratitude that your boss took the time to analyze your work you’ve bought yourself a moment to breathe deeply, calm down, and prepare for what might be, for both of you, a difficult conversation.

Starting with “Thank You” is also a good tactic to use with negative or competitive colleagues. It throws them off balance and shifts the control of the conversation back to you.

2) Embrace the Power of the Pause. Stop and think.“I need a minute to collect my thoughts and think about this before I answer”, or “Can we meet after lunch to discuss this further?”

3) The ‘24-Hour Rule’ If you’re really upset, get yourself out of the conversation with, “I am really surprised by your comments and need some time to process what you’ve said.”

Then schedule a meeting for the next day.

4) Don’t Apologize. Sometimes, when we’re surprised by criticism, we default to “I’m sorry”. But if you believe that you’ve given your best effort and the criticism isn’t warranted, don’t apologize. As an alternative, practice default responses like, “Can you tell me more about WHY you have this point of view?” or “Can you offer any suggestions for improvement?”

If, after a conversation or meeting, you largely agree with your boss, ask for help putting together a plan to improve.

If you DON’T agree, defend your position without becoming defensive.

  1. Schedule a one-on-one meeting to discuss further
  2. Prepare the facts and calmly defend your position
  3. Connect your point of view to shared business goals. This may shift your bosses’ viewpoint.

If there is still no resolution and you believe you are correct, you can respectfully agree to disagree. If that is not an option, you may have to defer to someone higher up. Be aware that this second option may put at risk your current relationship with your boss.


Staying Positive Following Negative Criticism

Remind yourself that you’ve got skills. Play to your strengths and focus on what you do best. Meet with a mentor or trusted colleague and talk through ways to build new skills. With a developing plan, you’ll have a more positive outlook. View this criticism as a bump in the road that pushed you to focus on professional development.

Do something else. Get your balance back through the activities and interests that make you happy and confident. Exercise is always a good option.

Learn from the experience. When the dust settles, think about what happened, what you learned, and what changed. Then, write it down. This gives you clarity, closure, and builds confidence for dealing with future criticism.


Constructive Ways to Offer Criticism

Hearing criticism can be difficult.
It can be equally uncomfortable to give.

We’ve talked about criticism as a shared responsibility. When you offer criticism, you sign on as a willing partner for working through the issue at hand. Be prepared to be part of the solution.

When offering criticism;

  1. Start with something positive. People are much more receptive to negative feedback if it’s introduced after positive comments.
  2. Don’t base your criticism on hearsay. Know the facts.
  3. Understand your audience. What is the best approach for delivering criticism to that person?
  4. Let the other person speak and really listen to what they are saying.
  5. Practice relaxed body language. Maintain good eye contact.
  6. Dedicate time to work together on an improvement plan.

Criticism helps you grow. Offering and responding well to criticism defines you as a valuable colleague with leadership and management skills.


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Thanks to my good friend Phyllis Schwartz, philanthropist, fundraiser, and so much more, for this excellent suggestion!

If there is a topic you would like to explore, send me email and we’ll cover it in 2019.