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How to Respond to Criticism Without Being Defensive

How to Respond to Criticism Without Being Defensive

by Laurie Wilhelm

Criticism doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Granted, it’s best when it’s delivered as useful constructive feedback, but sometimes criticism is an objective evaluation (based on analysis, figures, data, etc.) of someone’s work and doesn’t necessarily mean that blame or fault has been assigned to it.

For example, say you’ve submitted a plan to your supervisor who has come back to you saying that your plan is poor. It’s not beneficial to you for your supervisor to mislead you into thinking that it is good but only needs a tweak here and there. If she has the experience and knowledge to evaluate it and determine that it’s poor then, chances are, your plan is poor.

That’s not the end of the world. It’s not a personal attack. It doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of creating a good plan. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad employee. Being criticised does not mean you’re being chastised or reprimanded. It does mean, however, that there are problems with the submitted plan and those problems need to be addressed and resolved.

Here are some suggestions for accepting respectful criticism without being defensive:

Listen critically to the concern, issue or problem

Listen with the intent of understanding the point your supervisor is making. Focus on and think about what she’s saying and not on what your response will be and how you will defend your plan. She probably sees things that you don’t and is required to share that with you. Take advantage of her knowledge and expertise; the only way to do that is to listen attentively and without judgement.

Ask questions to make sure you understand what is being said

Seek clarification on what she sees is a problem. Ask questions to better understand why she believes this as an issue, what she recommends be done and how you should proceed. It’s her job to direct you to achieve the objectives that were assigned to you. Take advantage of her criticism to improve your results.

Review objectives and expectations

Before continuing to rewirte the plan, go over the objectives again so that both you and your supervisor agree on what is expected from the plan and how you will deliver the results.

Finally, here are a couple things not to do:
Don’t assume that the criticism is based on malice or antagonism – it’s your supervisor’s job to evaluate your work.

Avoid the temptation to say dismissive or flippant comments. These will only demonstrate that you’re unwilling to accept input from your supervisor and are not listening to the point of her message. It’s likely that such comments will not go over well with your supervisor and she may respond negatively to them.

Even if you don’t agree with the criticism, you do need to listen – listening and agreeing are two different things. However, you also need to keep in mind that she is your supervisor and is responsible to her boss for the work of her staff. Do your best to find out what she’s communicating to you and what you can do to best resolve what she sees is an issue. You can only do that by listening, asking questions and the reviewing objectives – being defensive won’t help you out.

*PLEASE NOTE: This article doesn’t reflect all situations where someone is giving criticism of another. This refers only to a situation where someone who is either obliged by position or responsibility to let the other know of an issue for which he is accountable. This article also is directed to a situation where the person delivering the information is doing so in a way that is not offensive – they’re not yelling, bullying, being demeaning or aggressive.


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