Seven Lessons to Take Criticism Positively

If you have studied science in high school, you might be familiar with Hooke’s law. Don’t worry; this is not a physics lesson, and I do not intend to explain Hooke’s law. I am more interested in jotting a few words about Robert Hooke— a British polymath who has lately been called “England’s Leonardo”. Apart from postulating Hooke’s law, he is also credited as the first to visualize a microorganism using a microscope.

At the zenith of his career, Robert Hooke was an authority and not just in science. After the great fire that devastated London in 1666, Hooke was put in charge for surveying the city for reconstruction. Though he made many significant contributions in science, the British Leonardo became more famous, rather infamous, for his rivalry with Isaac Newton. The story goes like this.

Around the year 1672, the Royal Society—the most eminent scientific institution in Britain—got wind of Isaac Newton’s brilliant work on light and color and invited him to publish a paper on the subject. In this paper, Newton posited that light is composed of particles. This was a radical notion at that time. Robert Hooke, an influential member of the Society, led the pack of skeptics and declared that Newton’s results were a mere hypothesis.

In 1686, when Newton published his first volume of Principia, Hooke claimed that it was he who had given Newton the idea of universal gravitation. Though the two scientists remained adversaries till Hooke’s demise in 1703, the constant pressure from Hooke on Newton forced him to bring significant mathematical refinements in his scientific concepts. Thus, in a way, Robert Hooke proved to be a friend rather than a foe. 

Those who criticize or belittle you are mostly viewed as your enemies, and they often are. Robert Hooke criticized Newton’s ideas, but that criticism led to improvements in Newton’s work. If people laugh at your presentation, don’t drown yourself in a river of embarrassment. Rather identify what made them laugh and improve on that. Try to find friends in your foes; take their criticism positively. The following seven lessons should help you do that.

Lesson One: You Are Not an Exception

No matter who you are, you will be criticized at some point. It could be your parents, teachers, siblings, friends, or rivals. It is unavoidable and you are not an exception. The first thing you need to do to handle criticism positively is to accept that you can be criticized. And some of that criticism could be fair as well. Embrace the fact that criticism is a part of life and in many cases leads to an opportunity.

Lesson Two: Your Feelings Will Be Hurt and That’s Okay

Another fact that you need to acknowledge is that being criticized is not a nice feeling. It bruises your ego; you feel inappropriate. This feeling of inappropriateness is natural. There is no exception to this as well. So rather than questioning your own emotions or trying to fool yourself as if nothing has happened, embrace another reality of life that criticism hurts. After accepting your own vulnerability, it’s time to get to the practical stuff i.e. how to deal with criticism.  

Lesson Three: Don’t React Promptly

Suppose you are presenting an idea to an audience. One of the attendees (possibly your boss or his boss) seems to disagree with your ideas.  As soon as you see the first sign of criticism, stop yourself from reacting immediately. Give yourself a few seconds; let your brain process the situation and prepare a proper response. If you react abruptly, you might regret that later. Stay calm and look for an articulate response rather than an emotional reaction. 

Lesson Four: Take Criticism as Feedback

Imagine another scenario: you are sitting with your boss for a performance appraisal. He or she has marked a certain grade for you which you aren’t happy with. Your boss is explaining the reasons for the lower grade your received. Rather than taking this conversation as a criticism, think about receiving it as feedback — a constructive assessment intended to bring positive transformation e.g. improving your skills, products, relationships etc.

Lesson Five: Listen to Understand, Not to Answer

Good learners are often good listeners; and good listeners listen to understand, not to answer. Before preparing a reply, seek to understand the content of criticism. Do not interrupt while others are speaking; let them finish their argument. Repeat what you have understood and get an affirmation from your critic. For instance, after your boss has finished explaining the reasons for your lower grades, you may ask,

“You want me to attend the daily operations meeting more frequently, is that right?”

If needed, get more clarity by asking more questions. The clearer you are about the real issues, the better you would be able to improve upon them.

Lesson Six: Evaluate the Content of the Feedback

Assuming you have succeeded in holding back your initial emotional reaction, have decided to take criticism as feedback, and have listened and understood the subject matter, it is time to wear your critics’ shoes. Put yourself in their position and analyze the content of the criticism that you have received.  It is likely that an unbiased, impartial review may tell you that at least some of the criticism was actually justified. This is not a bad thing; this in fact is an opportunity for improvement.

For those accusations that you find unfounded, you either ignore them or prepare a logical rebuttal. When refuting against unjustified allegations, remain assertive and do not lose your composure.

Lesson Seven: Buy Some Time to Respond

So you have weathered the criticism by successfully halting an emotional reaction, by understanding and evaluating the feedback, and by segregating the justified and unjustified complaints. Now, the final step is to prepare and present a response. You can present it right away if you are ready; if not, you can ask for some time to get back. However, don’t let this break turn into an excuse for eluding the situation. Once you commit to get back, do get back and get back firmly.

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