Supposedly when Robert Fulton was building his steam engine, his wife came to him in his workshop and said, “You’ll never get that thing to work, and even if you do you’ll never be able to get it out.” Well, miraculously, according to his wife, he got it to work. The engine sat in his front yard as he worked to fit it on a boat. His wife came to him and said, “I don’t know why you are spending so much time on that thing; you’ll never get it to the river.” Well, miraculously, according to his wife, he got the steam engine attached to a boat and got it down to the river. His wife came down to the river and said, “I don’t know why you are wasting your time; you’ll never get that thing to start.” Well, miraculously, it did start, and Fulton began moving down the river. He was happy on two accounts: one, his invention worked, and, two, he left his wife back on the dock. He heard a voice calling after him, saying, “You’ll never get that thing stopped. You never will.”
Criticism is inevitable. It is almost a daily staple for many people, especially leaders. It comes in the form of side comments to direct challenges, from people who walk into your office to anonymous notes sent by people with no courage.
We have become a nation of critics with 24-hour news and sports coverage. It spills over into every aspect of life.
Maybe you face criticism at work, home, or school. The nit-picking boss, coworker, business partner, acquaintance, friend, or family member is second-guessing your decisions and taking pride in pointing out your mistakes. They are like Robert Fulton’s wife, running alongside you, telling you just exactly what you can’t do and why it won’t work.
No matter how hard you work, how great your ideas, or how wonderful your talent, you probably will be the object of criticism. No one is exempt. Well, maybe you can evade it. “Criticism,” Aristotle wrote, “is something you can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” That’s not an option.
How do we deal with the critic? Since we all have them, and since we all are engaged in work that exposes ourselves to the critic, a proper mindset in dealing with criticism should be maintained. Here are ten action steps when dealing with your critics.
- Ask yourself if the criticism is true or false.
Take an honest look at yourself. If the criticism is valid, do something about it. Sometimes the best course of action is to respond to criticism. If the criticism is invalid, forget it. Sometimes the best course of action is to ignore it completely. A. W. Tozer wrote, “Never fear criticism. If the critic is right, he has helped you. If he is wrong, you can help him. Either way, somebody gets helped.”
2. Own what you can.
Criticism is a bit like sarcasm, there’s always a hint of truth, even when the bulk of the criticism is false. Find that element of truth and own up to it.
3. Learn from your mistakes.
Since there seems always to be an element of truth in most criticism, we need to cull those out and learn from them. Not all criticism is intended to harm you. A lot of criticism is designed to help you. There is a lesson in every criticism, but you must be willing to find it.
4. Resist the immediate reflex of defensiveness.
Listen for something right and may need improvement or changing while avoiding the strong desire to defend yourself. This action is hard. When we are on the receiving end of a critical remark, our fight mechanism usually kicks in, and we what to retaliate. Refuse to do that. When Lori Deschene took a summer acting class, she made the people around her uncomfortable with her defensiveness. The teacher was giving her feedback after a scene in front of the whole class. The teacher couldn’t get through a single sentence without Lori offering some type of argument. After a couple of minutes of verbal sparring, one of Lori’s peers said, “Stop talking. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
5. Wait twenty-four hours before responding.
Whenever you get a critical email, comment, or phone call, you feel hurt, crushed, and sometimes you get angry. You want to defend, deny, or retaliate. Typically, nothing good happens when you’re upset. Any attempt to respond immediately almost always makes it worse. When you feel an emotional reaction to criticism don’t respond for 24 hours. Instead, use that time to measure the value or worth of the criticism. This step requires excellent self-control that prevents you from becoming impatient and defensive.
6. Reply relationally.
Just because someone emailed you a stinging criticism doesn’t mean you should shoot off one, too. Just because someone called you out in a meeting doesn’t mean you should return the favor. I got this bit of advice from Andy Stanley. He suggested that you take your response to criticism up one level from how they responded with you. Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you. For example: If they emailed you, call them. You’ll not only shock them, but you’ll quickly diffuse the situation. People are bolder in an email than they ever are in a conversation. Nothing good regarding conflict ever happens on email. Or, if they stopped you in the hall and blasted you, take them out for coffee. Call them and tell them you would like to learn from them and address the issue in person. Or, if they got mad at a meeting, go for lunch after. Nine times out of ten, you will take the air out of the conflict balloon. And if they’re healthy, and you own whatever you can, you’ll be surprised at how it resolves the situation.
7. Respond with an appropriate comment.
Granted, it is hard not to be defensive when someone criticizes you. What do you say when you get together with your critic? Here are a few statements that you can learn to help you make the right step in learning from your critics while remaining relaxed. These statements let your critics know you are open to their feedback and want to perform better next time. Here are three suggestions:
- I understand I haven’t lived up to your expectations on this project. How can I do better next time?
- I’m trying to improve. Please clarify your concerns so I can do better next time.
- I’d appreciate actionable points with your next feedback.
Responding this way shows that you are not rolling over to become a doormat. It shows you sincerely want to improve.
8. Absorb criticism with grace.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressed personal relationships. He stated that when someone slapped you on the cheek, turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). That is hard to do, especially when you have been hurt and offended.
Gary Vaynerchuk provides an excellent example of how to respond to criticism with grace. When Vaynerchuk published his best-selling book Crush It, he received dozens of 1-star and 2-star reviews on Amazon. Negative reviewers claimed that the book was “absolutely awful” and called it a “piece of crap with no value whatsoever.” His book was a best-seller. Rather than fight back and justify his work, Gary decided to respond to many of the negative reviews with a sincere apology. For example, a reader named Frank left a 1-star review for the book in which he complained, “How did this book ever get published?” Vaynerchuk responded to him by saying, “Frank I am so so sorry I underdelivered for you, I hope to meet u and spend 15 minutes apologizing and answering any questions u may have, I guess I needed more details in there for u, I am so sorry.” Despite using grammar from a high school text message, Vaynerchuk ended up getting Frank’s number and called him to talk things over. After their conversation, Frank wrote a follow-up comment on his book review saying, “If Amazon had a people ranking system, I’d have to give Gary 5 stars. One cannot help being impressed by someone who gets back to you so quickly and handles criticism so graciously.”
If you’re going to respond to your critics, then getting a response like that should be your goal. Rather than retaliating with insults, win them back with sincerity. Most people don’t want to be convinced that your work is wonderful; they just want to know that you care.
9. Focus on the task, not the critics.
Many racing experts consider Mario Andretti to be the most successful and versatile racing driver of all-time. During his career, Andretti won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Formula One World Championship, and the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. He is one of only two drivers in history to win races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship, and NASCAR. During an interview with SUCCESS magazine, Andretti was asked for his number one tip for success in race car driving. He said, “Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.” When young drivers are starting to race, this is one of the most critical lessons that they learn. When you’re driving at 200mph, you need to focus on the road in front of you. If you look at the wall, then you’ll end up hitting it.
The same is said for your life, your work, and dealing with critics.
Criticism and negativity from other people are like a wall. And if you focus on it, then you’ll run right into it. You’ll get blocked by negative emotions, anger, and self-doubt. Your mind will go where your attention is focused. Criticism and negativity don’t prevent you from reaching the finish line, but they can certainly distract you from it.
However, if you focus on the road in front of you and move forward, you can safely speed past the walls and barriers nearby.
When someone dishes out a negative comment, use the feedback to recommit to your work, and to refocus on the road ahead of you. Some people are determined to take things personally and tear down the work of others. Your life is too short to worry about pleasing those people.
Marcus Aurelius said it this way: “The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. Not to be distracted by their darkness. To run straight for the finish line, unswerving.”
10. Know that time answers a lot of criticism.
Time and success have a way of erasing a lot of criticism.
Colonel George Washington Goethals, the man responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal, had big problems with the climate and geography. But his biggest challenge was the growing criticism back home from those who predicted he’d never finish the project.
Finally, a colleague asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer those critics?”
“In time,” answered Goethals.
“When?” his partner asked.
“When the canal is finished.”
In the end, they don’t build statues to the critic. Robert Fulton’s wife didn’t get one. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”