by Shannon Lee

Several weeks ago I created a mini-training video for the participants of Relā(NxGen) on the topic of criticism.  It seemed to resonate with the group, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.

The ability to deal with criticism internally, in a healthy and productive way, can help us to show up better at work and beyond.  Criticism is very important and useful but can also be very personal.  It is easy to become clouded with offense to the point we miss important pieces of constructive criticism while also putting way too much weight on other areas that can simply be ignored.  I’ll give an example to demonstrate what I mean.

Let’s say I submitted a proposal to a superior or other staff member and received this reply:


At first glance, it seems pretty negative and would more than likely send almost anyone into an emotional tailspin.  This might take the form of anything from anger to complete dismissal.

Now, I’ve received emails similar to this before and until I understood how to dissect them from a non-reactive mindset, they would consume my thoughts in a very negative way.

Let’s dissect, shall we?

1. Get as close as you can to a non-reactive state.  Take a moment, five minutes, an hour or a day.  Whatever it takes to get past the initial emotional charge of the criticism.

This may mean you walk away from it for a time.  This may also require you to not discuss or complain about it to others.  If sharing your thoughts with friends/family on the subject only increases the emotional charge – refrain.  For some, this is an outlet and helps to reduce the emotional charge.  Either way, just know how you respond to reliving the criticism with others.  For me, this only increased the upset.  Once you can feel that the initial stress, hurt, offense or emotional charge has waned significantly, you can move on.

2. Dissect.  Here you start asking questions and really looking at what is actually in the criticism, all from a place of calm.
Are there valid points to consider?
Am I too attached to an idea that may need reworking?
Am I assuming something that doesn’t exist or reading into the content?
Is any part mean-spirited and not helpful?
Did I unknowingly criticize this person?

So let’s look at the email above.  Are there valid points?  Yes.  I could certainly review my proposal for any grammatical, syntax or writing rules errors.  This is a valid, constructive criticism.

Is anything CLEARLY mean-spirited?  Yes!  Point 2 in that email was clearly mean-spirited and condescending. Those comments have nothing to do with me.  People who choose to communicate in this way are really telling a story about themselves.  It has to do with them, not me.  I choose, then, to let this go because I can’t change someone else.

And finally, taking a look at the last paragraph where I was asked to not introduce new ideas in the proposal.  There are two possibilities to consider here.  1.  This is a simple statement based on additional information I do not have access to.  Or 2. I have unknowingly criticized this person.  Oftentimes when we introduce new ideas to someone who has done something certain way before, they may be offended or feel as though we are criticizing the way they do things.  And all of this happens in their mind unconsciously. It’s not a criticism of me but possibly an insecurity on their part.  Or, they have specific reasons for not introducing new ideas that aren’t known to me.  The good news is neither of these scenarios are within my control.  Sure, I can choose to get mad or offended at their statement but in my opinion, it is usually a wasted effort because I can’t change other people.  A better choice for me is to let it go or ask for clarification.

At this point I’m ready to respond to the useful points and ignore the mean-spirited ones from a non-reactive place.

Does any of this stop the criticism?  No.  So what does this process accomplish?

For me, it accomplishes two primary goals:

1. To handle criticism more effectively by breaking it down into the useful parts.  This allows me to actually benefit from the small part that was helpful.  Had I not taken the time to do this, I may have missed out on constructive criticism that makes me better.
2. To respond to criticism from a non-reactive place.  This helps me show up better and stops the cycle of negativity in its tracks.  Emotional emailing back-and-forth can go from bad to worse pretty fast.  I can avoid that cycle using these ideas.

This is not to say inappropriate comments should be brushed under the rug.  There is a time and place for dealing with those situations (and potentially a topic for another blog post!)  What I am saying is I can choose to remove the emotional charge and deal with the comments more effectively in ways that serve me better.

Hopefully this provides some ideas and tactics to help deal internally with criticism in ways that may prove to be productive and beneficial.  Share some of your ideas for dealing with criticism in the comments!

If you or anyone you know is interested in Relā(NxGen), let us know!  We’d love to hear from you and share more about what this year’s participants are learning and doing!


Shannon Lee is the Associate Director and Relā(NxGen) Coordinator at Relā.  She resides in Lewis Center, Ohio with her husband Kristofer and their three children Jaren (19), Kaylee, (17) and Nia (16).

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