How to assertively and appropriately deal with criticism

On 17 August, 2012 in Human Resources by Rosie Overfield

Being able to accept criticism assertively is one of the most important tasks we face in the workplace. The dictionary definition of criticism comes from an Ancient Greek word describing a person who ‘offers reasoned judgement or analysis, value judgement, interpretation or observation’. To accept criticism in an assertive manner includes accepting feedback in the form of analysis, observation or interpretation from other people about our behaviour.

As with unassertive thinking, how we accept feedback regarding these factors is largely based on our experiences with criticism as a child. If we did not experience any criticism as a child then when we first experience it as an adult we may be devastated. If we were criticised harshly and punitively then we may see criticism as hurtful and rejecting. This latter case often occurs when we were criticised as an entire person rather than just a specific behaviour. For some people, mistakes as a child guaranteed the criticism “you are stupid” thus implying that their whole being was stupid. Criticism can then often feel like total rejection. 

Unhelpful beliefs about Criticism

As with other unassertive behaviours there is often some unhelpful thinking underlying the behaviour. Some of these are listed below:

  • If I am criticised it means I am stupid
  • If I am criticised it means I’m a failure
  • I can’t criticise others because I will risk our relationship

More helpful thinking in responding to criticism

Replacing negative thoughts with assertive, adult thinking goes a long way to minimising emotion and unhelpful reactions to criticism. These ‘cooler’ thoughts include:

  • If there is something wrong with what I’ve done it doesn’t mean anything about me as a person. I need to separate the behaviour from me.
  • What can I learn from this criticism? Most criticism is probably based, at least in part, on some truths.
  • I have the right to let someone know if their behaviour has hurt, irritated or upset me.
  • Giving direct feedback can be supportive and helpful

Responding assertively to constructive criticism

It is important to learn to accept constructive criticism. Depending on the way the criticism is presented to you, you can respond in a number of different ways.

1. Accept the criticism

If the criticism is valid then just accept it without expressing guilt or other negative emotions. Accept that you are not perfect and that the only way we can learn is to make mistakes, see what we need to change and move on. Thank the person for the feedback if appropriate.

2. Negative assertion

This technique involves not only accepting the criticism but openly agreeing with the criticism. This is used when a true criticism is made to you. The skill involves calmly agreeing with the criticism of your negative qualities, and not apologising or letting yourself feel deflated.  For example, someone may say:

Criticism: “Your desk is very messy. You are quite disorganised!”

Response: “Yes, it’s true, I’m not very tidy”.

The key to using negative assertion is self-confidence and a belief that you have the ability to change yourself if you wish. By agreeing with and accepting criticism you need not feel totally completely deflated. This type of response can also diffuse situations. If someone aggressive is making the criticism they may expect you to become defensive or aggressive back. By agreeing with them the tension in the situation is diffused.

3. Negative Inquiry

Negative inquiry consists of requesting further, more specific information about the criticism. If someone criticises you but you are not sure if the criticism is valid or constructive you ask for more details. For example:

Criticism: “You never give anyone any credit around here”

Reply: “What do you mean when you say that?”

If the criticism is constructive, that information can be used constructively and the general channel of communication will be improved. If the criticism is manipulative or destructive then the critic will be put on the spot.

Responding assertively to destructive criticism

Destructive criticism can appear at some point in our lives and it is far more difficult to process than constructive criticism. Consider the skills and language examples below. As with all skills remember it will take practice and some time to feel confident using these skills. You will notice that some of the skills are the same as for dealing with constructive criticism.

1. Disagree with criticism

The first technique for dealing with destructive criticism is simply to disagree with it.

It is important that you remain calm and watch your non-verbal behaviours including tone of voice. This is because we can often become aggressive or passive when disagreeing. For example:

Criticism: “You’re always late”.

Response: “No, I’m not always late. I may be late occasionally, but I’m certainly not always late”

2. Focus on responding to the words not the tone of the criticism

Often when people are giving criticism they can come across as confrontational, even aggressive. This may mean that we dismiss what they are saying despite the fact that the criticism may be a useful one.  Try to detach their emotion from the useful suggestions which lie underneath.

3. Don’t respond immediately

Consider waiting a little before responding. Acknowledge the person’s criticism i.e. “I appreciate you feel that way about this situation” and then take some time to process it. You might say “Can I come and talk to you about this again in 5 minutes?”

When you feel you are being criticised:

  1. Stop - don’t react until you are sure what is going on. Implement a 5 x 5 rule. Take 5 steps back from the situation and use 5 minutes to think.
  2. Ask yourself these questions – have you really been criticised? Are you mind-reading?
  3. Check if you need to by asking the other person. For example, you can say:

“What did you mean by that?”

  1. Once you have worked out if it is really a criticism, decide if it is valid or not and respond using one of the techniques above.


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