Dealing with Criticism: How to minimize the sting and turn the situation around

In a recent blog post, I shared my experience of judging a famous pianist for what I felt was a less than perfect performance.  My harsh judgment of this artist turned out to be a judgment of myself and my own abilities.  So what happens when you find yourself being judged by someone else and being the brunt of that person’s criticism of you?

It is hard to hear someone lash into us and criticize us.  The first thought for many people is “They are right.  I am just not good enough.”  And how awful we feel, with a pit in our stomach that can lead to actions like apologizing, agreeing with that person and maybe even stepping away from a challenge because we do not think that we can overcome this challenge.  Yet that criticism-however hard it may be to hear—is just an opinion and not a fact.  And there are ways to deal with this criticism that are far more empowering than rolling over and agreeing with the speaker.

I was reminded of this when a friend of mine recounted his experience of interviewing for a college teaching job.  He spent 2 days in back-to-back interviews, giving a series of master classes and performing at a concert. My friend felt great:  he knew his material, he clicked with the people, he loved the environment and he felt on top of his game, although he had a minor slip in one of the pieces in the concert.  Feeling terrific about his overall experience, he went into the final meeting with the department head ready for his wrap-up interview.  Her first comment was “How do you account for that egregious error in your performance?”

Whoa!  That really hurt.  How easily that experience could have lead him down a path of self-sabotage!  Instead,  my friend was able to explain that when he performs, he usually has some time beforehand to get ready, whereas here, he went straight from the interviews to the concert. The meeting continued very smoothly and everyone seemed pleased with him. Yet inside he was seething and felt awful. 

We talked about the situation and I offered him the following observations on some of the things that you can do when you find youself the brunt of someone else’s criticism,whether it is after a performance, in a job interview, at your work or in your personal life.  These are ways for you to take charge of the situation and keep a positive attitude.

First, step back before you respond.  Take a moment to reflect on what part of the statement may be true and then acknowledge any errors on your part.  Yes, this is easier said than done but it shows a lot of maturity and it can help to turn the situation around.

Second, it helps to think about where the other person is coming from.  Often, when people criticize others, they focus on the very thing that they feel insecure about.  Seeing a flaw in someone else is likely to remind the speaker of how inadequate he may feel. Or maybe it is a habit that he struggled to overcome and seeing it in another person makes him think that he could easily relapse into that behavior.

In either case, it is a perception and not an absolute truth.  And you—the person being criticized—is bearing the brunt of that person’s negative experience.

Finally, tap into your own gifts and what you are like at your core.  See how that thought can lead you to turn the situation around, politely stand up for yourself and then offer a response that showcases your gift.  It is a much more powerful way to respond to criticism and it shows how you can be authentically successful.

And the next time you find yourself making a negative judgment about someone else, think about what that person is reminding you of.  Perhaps it is something within you that you want to correct.  Or something that you have recently mastered.  And think about how you felt when you were the object of criticism.  What does the authentic, best side of you want to do in this situation? 

Probably not judge that person so harshly.

Because we are all human and just trying our best.

© Astrid Baumgardner 2011