How to Accept Criticism Without Being Defensive

August 19, 2022

We've all been there when someone has criticized something we did, how we looked, or even who we are. No one enjoys being told that they're wrong, and it certainly doesn't feel good to see someone else's disapproval of us. Criticism can feel painful, especially if it's delivered harshly.

And yet, receiving criticism is occasionally necessary so you can address what's not going well, like in relationships or the quality of your work. Being able to accept criticism and then act upon it is how you learn and then fix mistakes.

But it can be hard to accept criticism if you're busy being reactive or feeling defensive. If you know that you have a hard time with taking in criticism or feedback because you usually feel defensive, here are 5 steps to help you feel more open and receptive.

Step One: Expect Criticism as a Default

Don’t let criticism get the better of you or set you back. Instead, be ready for it – especially if you are in an environment where it is necessary for your success, such as your workplace or business. It's not a question of if you'll receive criticism, but when. The better you're able to accept that, the less defensive you'll be when it comes.

Additionally, try to realize the positive aspect in any criticism you receive. First, people wouldn't give you criticism if they didn't want to keep you around—they'd just exit the relationship or fire you because that's simpler. And second, the whole point of criticism is that it's an opportunity for you to learn a lesson that makes you better, not just now, but also in the future. It's like a permanent level-up.

Step Two: Listen First, and Then Ask Follow-up Questions

Before you rush to respond to whatever critical feedback you're receiving, try to listen. And don't just listen to respond...but truly listen to understand what that person is saying. Try your best not to assume anything or jump to conclusions. When it is your turn to speak, start by asking questions instead of making statement. Your goal is to make sure you're on the same page as the other person. A good way to check whether you understand what they're conveying is to offer a bottom line summary and see if they agree.

Step Three: Determine What Type of Criticism

After you reach understanding, determine whether what you're hearing is constructive or destructive. Constructive criticism is aimed to be helpful, uplifting, and often offers possible solutions.

Destructive (or mean-spirited) criticism is hurtful, mean, cutting, or derogatory in various other ways. If the criticism you're hearing is this type, then you're best off disengaging as quickly as possible. Thank them for their time and communicate that you're not available to continue the conversation.

Keep in mind that trying to accommodate destructive criticism will be an exercise in futility. You'll be left feeling upset, frustrated, inadequate, or just plain bad about yourself. And that will make you less motivated to grow or learn, which is the opposite of what healthy criticism is intended for.

Step Four: Face the Criticism and Take Ownership

If you recognize that the feedback or criticism is constructive, take responsibility. This might feel difficult, but try your best. Be honest about what happened. Apologize for your mistakes. If you handle this interaction well, the other person may very well be impressed by you.

Try not to make excuses, unless you truly had dire emergency circumstances beyond your control that affected the outcome.

Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT use this as an opportunity to reciprocate criticism to the other person. Doing so is the ultimate form of defensiveness. It will come off as retaliation, which will stress the relationship further. Even if you have valid criticism to return, this is not the time or place for that. Wait for another time to have that conversation with the person.

Step Five: Leverage the Criticism

Lastly, take action. Leverage this feedback. If you haven't already, outline what you plan to do differently in the future. Communicate this to the other person, and get their buy-in. See if there's anything else they would add, or anything else they might advise.

Practicing these rules will allow you to handle these interactions with a smooth and professional manner. You'll be able to receive constructive criticism without reacting poorly. And even more, you'll actually learn and grow from these experiences, which can only help you in your future.

As Henry Ford says, "The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing."

If you find that you're unable to shift your perspective around criticism even after checking resources like this article, then you might have something deeper underlying your behavior. It could be helpful to chat with a therapist or a coach, like myself. I offer a one-time complimentary session, if you're interested in figuring this out. If you've never had a coaching session before, this could be a great way to see what it's like without investing upfront.

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