3 Ways To Handle Criticism Like A Pro—And Actually Grow From It

Be smart about the way you ask for feedback and you'll quickly realize you can't live or learn without it. Here's how to ask the right questions and get the answers you need.

If you've ever been given a performance review, you know the dread that comes with getting feedback. Your muscles tighten as you await the enumeration of your inadequacies. Although feedback can improve performance and boost a company’s bottom line, often the negative connotation associated with it prevents us from using it to its full potential.

For business owners and managers, feedback comes from many places—balance sheets, customers, online reviews, and employee retention rates, to name a few. Ignoring this feedback can have detrimental effects on your company’s success, yet many of us are still averse to criticism. Sheila Heen, author of the new book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well says there's a powerful reason this.

"Feedback sits at the juncture of two core human needs," argues Heen. While on the one hand, we have a desire to improve and grow, we also have an innate need to be accepted and loved the way we are. "Feedback suggests that how you are now isn't quite A-okay," says Heen. High-achievers, in particular, struggle with this. "We think we should be doing it all and handling it all, if not perfectly, at least perfectly enough that other people don't notice."

So, how can we embrace criticism and learn to grow from it?

1. Let go of your fixed mindset.

Whether we view feedback as threatening or helpful depends on how we see ourselves, says Heen. Some people view themselves through a fixed identity. They have a mindset that says: "I am how I am. I'm either smart or stupid, capable or not, I'm going to be a success or a failure." Such individuals take feedback as a verdict about their core being.

On the other hand, people who maintain a growth mindset assume that how they are today isn't necessarily how they will be in the future. Thinking this way will allow you to accept feedback as a way to learn and grow.

2. Ignore what you don't agree with.

Not all criticism is helpful. "Getting good at receiving feedback doesn't mean that you actually have to take it. It simply means that you resist the temptation to instantly either reject it or let it overwhelm you and instead work to understand it better," says Heen. Knowing which opinions to accept and which to ignore means taking the time to fully hear people out.

Since the majority of feedback tends to be vague ("You need to be more of a team player" or "You need to be more responsive to the market") you might need to push for more specifics. You could ask: "What specifically prompts you to say this?" or "What do you think I should be doing differently?" Getting answers to these questions will help you decide whether the message is useful or not.

3. Don't fish for a canned response.

How you ask others for their opinions of you and your work will determine whether or not their responses are useful. "Asking ‘Do you have any feedback for me?’ is overwhelming for the giver and it's not clear how honest you want them to be," says Heen.

Instead, be more specific in your questioning. For example, asking "What's one thing we could change that would make a difference to you?" makes clear the type of response you're soliciting. You'll be rewarded with more detailed thoughts that can help you and your business grow.

[Image: Flickr user Loren Kerns]

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  • This is why I'm so grateful for my experience in design school. For 3 years we learned to critique others and also receive critique. The process showed me that most criticism isn't bad at all. It also taught me that not everything has to be defended. If you don't agree with someone's critique, just say, "thank you for your thoughts" and move on.