10 steps for dealing with criticism

Criticism can be tough to handle, especially for analytically inclined IT pros. Alan Norton offers some advice for weathering critical remarks.

I have noted during my career that IT engineers often respond negatively to criticism. There are a number of reasons for this. We may be trying to hide our insecurities and lack of knowledge, especially if we're inexperienced. We may only hear the message as negative. We may fail to engage the wonderful thinking processes we have been gifted with. Or we may just be too lazy to consider constructive criticism. Ironically, put the same IT engineers in a conference room and they have no problem criticizing your systems design. To test your sensitivity to criticism, ask yourself how receptive you were to the critical words of your immediate supervisor during your last performance appraisal.

I am not going to tell you that dealing with criticism is easy. On the contrary. Analytical thinkers are convinced that their way is the only way. I have seen it all too often in my own family when a discussion amongst the analytical thinkers soon becomes contentious. But it doesn't have to be that way. Follow these 10 steps to get a better grip on the unwanted and unsolicited critical words hurled in your direction.

Step 1: Consider the possibility that you might be wrong

"Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion."Blaise Pascal

Before you can accept and properly deal with criticism, you must admit the fact that there is always room for improvement and that you are not perfect. Only the perfect can disregard all criticism. I may not know you, but I do know that you are not perfect. It follows that you have seen, and will continue to see, your fair share of criticism - so please read on.

Think wrong before you are wrong.

Step 2: Consider the other point of view

"Don't criticize what you don't understand, son. You never walked in that man's shoes."Elvis Presley

Through experiences, we gain wisdom. Since it is impossible to experience everything life has to offer, consider each person as a repository of unique experiences and lessons learned just waiting for you to mine. If you do not understand the criticism, consider the possibility that the events experienced by the criticizer may have given him or her wisdom that you do not possess. With the right attitude, your own point of view might be changed for the better.

Regard, but don't discard.

Step 3: Consider the source

"We hate to have some people give us advice because we know how badly they need it themselves." —Anonymous

It is human nature to consider most criticism as derogatory. Before jumping to conclusions, though, you should consider who is giving the "advice." It is easy to misunderstand the nature of the criticizer. Analytical thinkers, for example, are wired to recognize invalid arguments, mistakes, and bad information. It's what they do, so you shouldn't be too surprised when they offer you their "helpful advice."

Pay attention to criticism from your friends and loved-ones. Recognize those who will not be offering constructive criticism before you waste one gigasecond of brain time. Some people, by their very nature, offer unhelpful advice or criticism. It's wise to recognize that fact and accept that there is little that you can do to change their behavior.

Separate those who indicate from those who pontificate.

Step 4: Listen

"If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear." — Mark Twain

It is also human nature to dismiss criticism and let it go in one ear and out the other. It is so much easier than having to try to understand the "critical" point being made. Listen to or read the comment containing the criticism carefully. I often have to reread a paragraph before understanding the point trying to be conveyed. "Listen" with more than your ears. Important information can be derived from the tone of the words and the body language of the criticizer. And it's much harder with oral communication. You need to listen and respond quickly by thinking on your feet, and you can do that only when you give the speaker your full and undivided attention.

Listen also to your gut. It will tell you when criticism has touched a raw nerve.

Step 5: Don't respond emotionally

"Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him." — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Regardless of whether the criticism is valid, a defensive attitude is unprofessional and irresponsible. You may not like the "helpful advice" that has been handed to you. We all too often want to respond to criticism with a knee-jerk defensive attitude or with a verbal attack of the criticizer. Lashing out with an angry emotional response like, "You are a clueless buffoon" may help you feel better, but it's unwise — especially if said to your boss. Defensive, angry emotional responses are almost always regretted later when the heat of the moment has passed. After all, professionals who are secure in their abilities let their work do the talking for them.

There is a reason why your parents told you to count to 10 before responding. The time allows us to engage the brain and respond thoughtfully instead of emotionally. Thomas Jefferson once said, "When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred."

Reflect, but don't deflect.

Step 6: Throw out derogatory criticism

"If I care to listen to every criticism, let alone act on them, then this shop may as well be closed for all other businesses. I have learned to do my best, and if the end result is good then I do not care for any criticism, but if the end result is not good, then even the praise of ten angels would not make the difference." — Abraham Lincoln

There are two basic types of criticism, constructive and derogatory. Before you can respond correctly to criticism, you must separate criticism with merit from criticism of no value. Only the obviously malicious statements should go into the "derogatory" bucket in this step.

Criticism from these behavioral types can almost always be put into the "derogatory" bucket:

  • Armchair Archie — Second guesses after the event
  • Back Seat Bertie — Not responsible but offers "helpful" tips anyway
  • Bamboozle Bambi — Snows them with a blizzard of meaningless words
  • Complicated Cuthbert — Offers solutions that are more complex than a Rube Goldberg machine
  • Conformist Concetta — Critical of eccentric behavior outside the "norm"
  • Hopeless Harry — The eternal pessimist
  • Obvious Olivia — Points out the obvious
  • Omniscient Oscar — The know-it-all who tells you wonderful, irrelevant facts
  • Pernicious Percival — Intentionally tries to do harm with criticism
  • Repetitious Repete — Repeats criticism already expressed, typically in a forum
  • Silly Sally- - Offers ridiculous solutions
  • Wrong Way Willie — Always points you in the wrong direction

Distinguish the character from a character.

Step 7: Recognize constructive criticism

"Every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration. Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought." — Margaret Chase Smith

It is not as easy to recognize constructive critical statements about you or your work as you may think. Communication is complex, and your sensitivities and prejudices work against the proper deciphering of the message.

Six types of messages can be messages of constructive criticism (Table A).

Table A

Types of constructive criticism.

As you can see, the intended message can be very different from the message received. Constructive criticism is or is not in the eye of the beholder. If you do not recognize constructive criticism for what it is, you will most likely discard it.

Step 8: Acknowledge and accept the truth

"Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self evident." — Arthur Schopenhauer

You may properly recognize constructive criticism, but without acknowledging and accepting the truth in the message, you will almost certainly ignore it. Sometimes the truth hurts, but that does not necessarily make it invective.

Concede the painful truth before the truth becomes painful.

Step 9: Act on constructive criticism

"Criticism always follows worthwhile action. The opposite is seldom true." — Torley Wong

If you follow the above steps but do not act, you have wasted an opportunity — and you might be on a collision course with disaster. You may need to swallow your pride and change your plans. Yes, it is true; even the best of us are wrong at times, and it takes mature people comfortable in their own skin to admit when they are wrong.

Act but don't react.

Step 10: Learn from criticism

"Don't mind criticism. If it is untrue, disregard it; if unfair, keep from irritation; if it is ignorant, smile; if it is justified it is not criticism, learn from it." — Anonymous

We can all learn from criticism, even when it is not well intentioned. You may not be able to use constructive criticism to change work that has already been completed but you can certainly use it in the future. The next time a similar situation arises you can avoid the behavior that spawned the original criticism.

Learning from criticism is better than learning from failure.

The bottom line

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." — Winston Churchill

Since IT is full of analytical thinkers, it's important to learn how to best dish out and respond to criticism. Make sure your unsolicited words are helpful before engaging the language center of the brain and consider carefully, before speaking, how the message will be received. Ambiguous or unclear criticism will almost never be received well.

Failure to respond correctly to constructive criticism can be costly. Engineers of all types should note that failure occurs all too often at the most important step, step 1. All steps are important, but when engineers and managers fail to consider the possibility that their intended course of action might be wrong, the remaining nine steps become moot. From the Titanic to the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, warnings have been given, and ignored, leading to loss of life. Software engineering errors also cost lives and are estimated to cost $60 billion annually in the U.S. alone.

Responding to criticism in a professional manner will reduce the possibility of any hurt feelings among you and your peers. Criticism may be a bitter pill to swallow, but necessary for growth beyond one's own preconception of self. A world without criticism might be more comfortable, but it would also be less fulfilling and a lot more dangerous.


Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

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