The Difference Between Success And Failure: How You Handle Criticism

how to handle criticism

Taylor Swift might be shaking off all the haters — but in doing so, she could be missing out on the value of solid, constructive criticism.

Ok, probably not. But there is something extremely helpful in honing the ability to handle criticism in a way that makes it a learning opportunity. Whether it’s a performance review at work, a suggestion from a client, or some insight from a peer, criticism can help you become a more successful business person, or even just a kinder or more dynamic person.

First, though, it’s important to decide if the criticism is valid. There is a big difference between critics, who may have valid points which can make your work better, and people who are just plain negative. Call them haters, call them trolls — whatever you call them, it’s important to be able to identify the difference and, as a result, know who to listen to.

One of the best ways to decide if you should listen to someone’s criticism? In her TED Talk on vulnerability, Dr. Brené Brown explained it like this, in her talk with Chase Jarvis.

“There are people whose opinions matter…but if you’re not going you’re not in the arena, then I’m not interested in your feedback.”

Feedback from critics who are on your level, or who are also actively putting themselves out there, is worth listening to. But criticism or disparaging remarks from those who have nothing to lose, who aren’t involved in art or your field, who aren’t, themselves, in a position of creative vulnerability — that’s not valid or worth your time. Twitter trolls, nasty Yelp reviews that result to name-calling, and cruelty in comment threads can’t tell you anything that the people who love you and care about you could.

As Richard Branson points out on his blog, if you’re successful, “some people will react to success by trying to hang onto your coat tails.” Often, though, instead of doing so by trying to be part of your momentum, they’ll attempt to go the opposite direction and try to take you down with criticism. We’ve all seen these kinds of articles or reactions; a person is doing really well and getting a lot of praise, and then a few lone voices, clamoring to be heard in the noise, speak up in opposition. They don’t actually impart any wisdom, nor do they offer suggestions — they just complain. You have no time for this kind of vampire.

“The best thing you can do is to not only ignore them, but to prove them wrong in every single way,” says Richard.

However, if someone in your life who really does care about you, respect you, or have a vested interest in your work comes to you with criticism (or you seek it out from them), taking it graciously and with the mindset that you can learn from it is extremely difficult — though not impossible. The key to accepting criticism is to see it as a helpful tool, not a slight. This can help you curb your own initial reaction which is, most likely, going to be either hurt or defensive.

Here’s what to do when receiving criticism:

Don’t react. “At the first sign of criticism, before you do anything—stop. Really.” writes Nicole Lindsey for the Daily Muse, “Try not to react at all! You will have at least one second to stop your reaction. While one second seems insignificant in real life, it’s ample time for your brain to process a situation. And in that moment, you can halt a dismissive facial expression or reactive quip and remind yourself to stay calm.”

Don’t counter. This is really just a second chapter to “don’t react,” but really. Don’t fight about it. You’re hearing someone’s opinion, and getting defensive and trying to tell them why they’re wrong will serve no one.

Assume the other person knows something. It’s really easy to decide that the person criticizing you “just doesn’t get it.” But if you’ve asked this person, or you’ve already decided that this is a person whose opinion you trust, odds are, they’re coming to the conversation with some insight. Remember: No one thinks of themselves as stupid or ill-informed. In this situation, try also not to go that direction. Instead, think of them as a smart, savvy person with something valuable to add.

Avoid blame. Finding an external reason for the failure or flaw that’s being pointed out is easy — but is it honest? If you’re the one who made a decision or executed something that is now being criticized, don’t ask “what went wrong?” or “how did [someone else] let that happen?” Instead, ask “what did I do? What could I have done better?” It may be that the fault really does lie on someone else, but defaulting to that decision means you’ll never acknowledge your own flaws.

Remember that one bad thing doesn’t outweigh 50 good things. People who tend to react the most defensively toward criticism are also, statistically, the most likely to have the lowest self-esteem. If you find yourself reacting really negatively, ask yourself why that is. Is it because this criticism is overshadowing your other accomplishments? Are you focusing on the negative parts, only, and not the constructive parts? Try to find the parts of the criticism that really do feel true to you, and that might help you make someone of it.

Remember: Not all criticism — even from very smart, very loving people — is necessarily helpful. Sometimes, people really do just have differing opinions, and there are definitely going to be times when you know best. But there is value and merit to criticism, because it is a learning opportunity. As long as you can sort the good from the bad, you’ll be just fine.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.