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Strengthening Your Openness to Criticism Ability

Strengthening Your Openness to Criticism Ability

If you're open to criticism, you're able to accept negative feedback about yourself or your work without reacting overly emotionally.

For example, as a student you could weather a mediocre grade on a school project or exam without suffering too much damage to your sense of self-worth – and use the grade as impetus to work harder. Or at your job, you're able to get through a critical performance review and see it as an opportunity to learn rather than as a personal attack that you need to defend yourself against.

Feedback is an opportunity to learn. (A common phrase at the well-known consulting firm McKinsey & Company is "the gift of feedback.") And we all receive criticism at various points throughout our lives. So, being open to criticism can make your journey through life a lot smoother. In fact, whether criticism is constructively intended or not, you have the option to use it – or not.

How do you become more open to negative feedback? Try these suggestions:

  • Read a book on how people learn from critical feedback. Potentially useful titles include Coaching and Feedback for Performance published by Duke Corporate Education and Fostering Reflection and Providing Feedback: Helping Others Learn from Experiences by Jane Westberg and Hilliard Jason.

  • Take an online learning course on topics such as enhancing your self-esteem or evaluating information objectively. Your company may have purchased a site license for such e-learning programs. Or, you may be able to buy a CD containing modules of interest as well as participate in them online or download them from the developer. Some developers charge a fee for participation in the courses they offer; others offer modules for free.

  • Attend a workshop or course on this subject. Your company may offer such learning opportunities or may be willing to reimburse your tuition if you take such a course through another organization. Local university extension programs, as well as continuing education programs, may offer such workshops and courses.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone who you view as particularly open to criticism. Ask this person how he or she has strengthened this ability.

  • Consider counseling. For some people, being overly sensitive to criticism stems from their psychological makeup. It seems that some people are just more thin-skinned than others, more easily hurt when they're criticized, or embarrassed when someone else sees them fail. This oversensitivity may stem from early experiences of being criticized and from seeing how parents deal with criticism, as well as some biological factors. Depression can also cause people to have a negative self-image. Individuals who suffer from depression constantly tell themselves that they're inadequate. Being criticized, even for something minor, feels like confirmation of that "fact." Fortunately, these issues can be treated through counseling, and sometimes through medication. Many people see cognitive therapy as the most effective kind of counseling for this kind of concern. However, the most important thing is to find a counselor who is highly skilled and experienced, regardless of approach.

  • View criticism through a new lens. Sometimes we feel that we have to defend ourselves against criticism because we feel that the negative feedback is about our worthiness or our character. But no one else can make those sorts of judgments about you. Make an effort to see criticism for what it really is: feedback on your ideas or behavior, not a personal attack on your value as a human being.

  • Establish some emotional distance. During a performance review, try to "step outside" yourself mentally and listen to the feedback as if it were being directed at a third person in the room. Establishing this kind of psychological distance can help you hear the critical feedback more objectively, rather than feeling defensive or hurt by it.

  • Let go of the idea that you have to defend yourself against criticism. You don't. Instead, you can simply listen to it and then decide what – if anything – you want to do with it. Can you treat it as a learning opportunity, identifying its useful components and rejecting those aspects of it that aren't accurate or relevant? Do you want to file it away for the time being and possibly think about it later? The choice is yours. For example, suppose your boss says to you, "You really need to pay more attention to the details in this marketing report – it’s pretty sloppy." Once you're desensitized to the sting of criticism, you might calmly think to yourself, "My boss is right: I'm not very conscientious about details. I need to look for ways to ensure that my reports more polished." Or you might think, "I'm not sure I agree that the report is sloppy. I'll take a look at some other reports to see if I'm off base here, or if my boss is off base."

  • Practice controlling defensive behaviors or comments when you receive criticism. Defensiveness only makes people look immature and insecure. Think about times when you've seen someone else get defensive. You don't want to come across that way yourself.

  • Desensitize yourself. Go out of your way to ask trusted others for their feedback on your performance in different areas. Ask people who you're certain care about you, so you'll know that any criticism isn't a personal attack. Eventually, you'll reach a point where you can hear negative feedback from anybody and not react emotionally. Instead, you can just examine the criticism with a detached mind and see if there's anything in it that you can use.

  • Accept that everyone has flaws. When you embrace this notion, you can more easily admit to weaknesses without feeling devastated that you're not perfect.

As you make your way along your career path, you'll receive negative feedback throughout the journey. The more you can open yourself to this criticism, the more you can use it to enhance your performance in areas that you agree need improvement. The above suggestions can help you see criticism as a useful tool – not an attack on your worth as a person.