Over the last few years I’ve learned that the Internet is a particularly harsh environment when it comes to receiving feedback. One example in particular sticks in my mind. About a year ago, I was helping my Ph.D. advisor create videos for an online course. After we published the first video, someone left the following comment:
Sorry to strike a negative note but I find Jess’ delivery quite irritating which detracts from the whole objective of this video. I’m sure she’s incredibly intelligent and has much to contribute but she needs to slow down, think a little more before she speaks and have more confidence in her opinions.
I totally wasn’t expecting that response—and the thought that someone I didn’t know was watching and judging me was upsetting. Since then, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to respond better to criticism. Here are six steps I’ve found useful:
1. Take a few deep breaths
My initial reaction to the criticism on the video was highly emotional. I wanted to cry, but I was also angry. How dare a stranger be so mean? It’s important to remember, though, that when we feel stressed, threatened, or challenged, it’s easy to react automatically. We may go into fight-or-flight response: our muscles tense up, our heart rate increases, and our ability to think clearly diminishes as we go into survival mode. This kind of reaction might help if your life is in mortal danger, but it’s excessive if the “threat” is actually a nasty Internet comment.
So when you receive criticism, before you do anything else, take a few deep breaths and pay attention to what is happening to you physiologically. This will help to shift you from fight/flight mode into the opposite—rest and digest—allowing you to assess the situation much more calmly and rationally.
2. Remind yourself that criticism is useful
When someone criticizes us, it’s natural to automatically think, Oh no, this is awful! I’ve done something wrong! I really wish I’d never heard this!
When I notice myself feeling like this, I find it helpful to remind myself that accurate, constructive criticism can be extremely useful. If there’s something I’m doing poorly—if I am, in fact, an incredibly irritating presenter—then that’s a fact, whether I’m aware of it or not. What matters after that is that I do something about it. Criticism can be great when it provides us with opportunities to become better.
3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
Once you’ve calmed down and reminded yourself of the benefits of criticism, it can help to step back and ask: “Where is this person coming from?”
Considering the other person’s perspective means you focus less on yourself and how you might be feeling. Doing so can help you become less defensive and see that the criticism isn’t actually personal. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can also help you to find something useful in the criticism. I know I have a tendency to speak too fast; when I thought about the comment in a more objective way, I realized that anyone listening might simply have wanted to understand what I was saying and found it frustrating that they couldn’t.
4. Distill the criticism into useful and non-useful parts
In most cases, when someone criticizes us harshly, what they are saying is neither completely true nor completely false. There will likely be some grain of fact within their critique, and possibly some way in which we can improve. In my case, I don’t believe it’s true that I’m “irritating” in general—but it is true that I do speak too quickly sometimes. Rather than thinking we have to either totally accept or totally reject a piece of criticism, we can parse out what’s useful and what isn’t.
My friend Spencer has a taxonomy of criticism that I find helpful. He suggests there are three key kinds of criticism: accurate criticism, ignorant criticism, and emotive criticism. Accurate criticism is criticism that is warranted and relates to one of your flaws; ignorant criticism is based in confusion or misunderstanding (which doesn’t actually relate to you); emotive criticism is criticism designed to express or evoke a certain emotion. In this context, “Jess needs to have more confidence in her opinions” is an ignorant criticism. At the time, I was fairly confident in my opinions, but I didn’t have much experience expressing them clearly on video. The statement “I found Jess’ delivering incredibly irritating,” is an emotive criticism; the commenter isn’t pointing to an inherent flaw I possess but simply expressing an emotion she felt when listening to me.
5. Get a second opinion
Once you’ve extracted something useful from a bit of criticism, it may be worth getting a second (or third, or fourth) opinion to get a sense of how big a problem it is. Is it only this one person who thinks you have this flaw, or do other people agree? When I received that online comment, I had already received feedback from others previously that I spoke too quickly, so even though my feelings were hurt, I was pretty sure the commenter’s advice was accurate. If I had heard the opposite from others whom I trusted, I might have been more skeptical that this was an issue I should be working on.
6. Make a plan to improve
If you’re able to distill something accurate and useful from criticism, great! Your final step is to make sure you actually work on improving. This might involve getting advice from others; for example, I sought out feedback and advice from friends on speaking more slowly and clearly. Another way to take on the challenge at hand is to set aside time to practice. In my case, that meant preparing for the next video I was recording. Whatever your solution is, the important thing is to be present enough to understand the feedback and figure out how to move forward in the future.