Emotional intelligence: 5 ways to handle criticism

Criticism - and how we respond to it, using emotional intelligence - fuels personal growth
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emotional intelligence handling criticism

It’s happened to all of us. You’ve slaved over something – a presentation, a design, a product concept, you name it – only to have someone say you’ve overlooked a critical flaw or a better solution. It’s even worse when that person is someone you respect, or maybe someone you’re supposed to lead. The worst? When you know they are right.

It can sting, for sure. The good news is handling criticism is a skill, and like any skill, it can be developed through practice and understanding.

Handling criticism is a skill, and like any skill, it can be developed through practice.

It’s important to recognize that it’s also a process. You may have heard of the stages of grief –starting with shock and denial, going through anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to run its course, leading to acceptance – a place from which to move forward. Something similar happens when we receive criticism, and handling it well means acknowledging the process and having a useful response at each step.

[ How does your EQ stack up? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

Here’s how to respond to each step as you go through it:

1. Pause and listen

Criticism naturally triggers our “fight or flight” circuits – so you’ll need to consciously turn off the autopilot and resist the urge to react or defend. Take the time to engage your listening skills and just absorb what is said so you can unpack it later. You may not be able to process the content at the moment, especially if your emotions are strong. Just hear the person out, and always end the conversation by saying “thank you.” More on this later.

2. De-personalize the message

Our natural response is the opposite of this. They say “that color is not working,” and we hear “you are bad at picking colors.” They say “this rollout strategy is not thought through” and we hear “you are a bad strategic thinker.” Instead, consciously keep the focus on the work itself, where it belongs. If you are so attached to the work that even that feels like a personal attack, it’s a signal to re-evaluate your relationship with the product. You are the work’s way into the world, not the work itself.

3. Find the other person’s truth

Get them to say more, even though you probably want the opposite at that moment.
Criticism is always a response to something, and your task is to understand what is triggering it. Ask the person to elaborate on points that you find yourself resisting. Get them to say more, even though you probably want the opposite at that moment. It is very important not to focus on how to defeat the criticism, or find weaknesses.

Improving is about taking coaching and using it, not proving that it’s wrong. Seek to reach a point where you see what they see. This doesn’t mean they are always right - you may know something they don’t, for instance - but you won’t really know until you see their truth as they experience it.

4. Integrate and engage

The whole point of criticism is to improve the work. Once you have found the precious insights that the criticism holds, make it your mission to fold those insights into the work and make it stronger, better, and more powerful – whatever that means for whatever you’re doing. Once you hold the critic’s truth in your hands, you own it and can direct its power to serve your goals –which is pretty awesome, really.

All of which leads to the last step in the process:

5. Gratitude

Thoughtful, constructive feedback is a gift and should be appreciated as such. Someone who has taken the time to formulate constructive coaching is expending effort – on your behalf. Delivering criticism is also uncomfortable, so appreciate the work it takes to deliver that message. Insight on your work is priceless, and you can get it no other way. Adopt a grateful attitude towards criticism, and always thank the person who is bringing you this gift.

When criticism is unfair

What if the criticism really feels unfair? Or not well delivered? Or what if we genuinely think they are wrong in their opinion? Think back to grief and its stages. How often are our losses unfair –even tragically so? However, this doesn’t change the process or the path to growth. The same is true of criticism – if our responses at each step are the same for any criticism, reasonable or not, well-delivered or less-than, the result will still be the same: improvement and growth.

Taking criticism will never be a pleasurable experience. No matter how good at it you get, it will still be painful. But take the time to thoughtfully respond to each step as you go through it, and the next time you are on the receiving end, you will come through with more to show for it than just scars.

[ Read also: Teaching an elephant to dance - a free eBook on leading teams during digital transformation. ]

For more than 20 years, Jaeson has been working with in-house and agency teams to conceive, lead and deliver digital experiences that solve real problems. Jaeson helps define digital product and service strategies for clients including Charles Schwab, Delta Community Credit Union, LifeScan, and others. Jaeson holds a BA in Music and English from the University of California at Be