Facing Criticism at Work? Here’s How to Stay Confident
Success-driven professionals tend to take our work personally—including the criticism we get for it.
While we have the power to respond to all criticism constructively, there’s some criticism that brings even the most empowered among us to our knees. This is the kind of feedback that challenges our self-worth, our power to serve, and our authority as professionals.
When we get difficult criticism, it’s important to have a practice to lean on so we can bounce back stronger and more assertive than we were before. In fact, according to a graduate study conducted by Mark Reid, assertiveness is one of the key factors of Emotional Intelligence, which research shows is a core part of effective communication at work.
The following three-step assertiveness practice has been a lifeline when I’ve received truly challenging criticism. This practice has allowed me to re-center myself when I feel trapped in the mire of other people’s wants, needs, and expectations—helping me to distill the lessons in the criticism while still standing my ground.
Step 1: Give Yourself Permission to Feel
We carry so many hidden limiting beliefs about certain feelings. The anger, sadness, shame, and other negative emotions that result from receiving criticism can trigger beliefs about what is wrong or lacking in us as human beings. We may believe that having so-called negative feelings reflects our weakness, illness, or badness.
Decide to feel what you feel.
So, we may react by resisting, dismissing, or outright denying these feelings, only to have them grow stronger and more depleting.
The solution? Decide to feel what you feel. Carve out some time alone and undistracted to simply sit still, breathe deeply, and witness the sensations that arise in your body. Scan your body from head to toe and notice what feelings come up in each body part.
Maybe you feel your head swimming in your racing thoughts. Your neck might be aching under the burden of feeling not good enough. Your heart could be pounding with anger at some unjust remarks hurled your way. But amidst the struggle, you may eventually feel some courage mingling with the anger, some peacefulness expanding in your lungs as your deep breathing relaxes you.
As you notice your feelings, choose to relate to them, not as an indication of who you are, but as a sign of what needs your attention so you can respond proactively to the situation at hand.
Step 2: Write It Out, Talk It Out, Work It Out
Once we’ve given ourselves permission to feel, we need to express what we feel. You may have heard the popular definition of emotions as “energy in motion.” In other words, emotions aren’t designed to stagnate. Rather, they’re designed to be fluid, to move through us.
Emotions are energy in motion.
To help shift our feelings from negative and depleted to positive and assertive, we need to put words to what we feel—uncensored—and then talk about them to those we trust to listen to us.
For the first phase of this process, I recommend writing down what you feel. This is the unedited part, for your eyes only. Allow every feeling to spill onto the paper in its raw form, no matter how wrong or even obscene your feelings may seem. If you’re compelled to write an entire page of expletives or a litany that would knock your critic(s) to the ground—so be it.
Then, highlight the key feelings that are especially difficult for you to process. Decide who you want to discuss them with and clarify what kind of feedback you need so you can respond effectively. If you just want someone to listen, that’s completely valid. I’d recommend speaking with someone who isn’t directly involved in your relationship with the person/people who have criticized you, in order for you to get unbiased support.
Another tip: Physically moving our bodies based on how we’re feeling is a key part of healthy self-expression, whether that means dancing, hitting a punching bag, practicing yoga, or doing other forms of exercise. This is one of the fastest and most effective ways I know to keep our emotions moving in a positive direction, especially when we focus on our breathing and how it would feel to be assertive.
Step 3: Use D-E-A-R M-A-N When Talking to Your Critics
D-E-A-R M-A-N was introduced to me by my soul-based business strategist, Kim Page, as a handy mnemonic to practice assertive communication. It was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., ABPP, an expert in human psychology. I'll illusrate each letter in the acronym with an example adapted from my experience with writer clients struggling with criticism.
●︎ D stands for describing the facts of the situation at hand. "My understanding is that I was to provide you with ten hours of editing work for $500, and you were expecting a ten page critique in that amount of time."
●︎ E stands for expressing your feelings and opinions using “I” statements, along with a brief explanation. For example: "I feel unclear as to why you expected a ten-page critique, when we agreed that half of your payment (five hours of my time) was to be set aside for a step-by-step editing strategy."
●︎ A stands for asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want. Example: "I would like to talk to you over the phone to clarify what your editing needs are, and also what we can do to meet those needs together. I don’t want to write a ten-page critique because I feel it would be overwhelming for you as a novice writer."
●︎ R stands for reinforcing the benefits of getting what you want and need and the consequences of not getting what you want and need. Example: "If you’re open to speaking with me over the phone about our scope of work, I feel we can come to a clearer understanding of what will make your book as effective as possible. If we don’t, I’m concerned that you’ll continue to want more feedback than we can efficiently apply to editing your work."
●︎ M stands for staying mindful of your desired outcome for the communication, without giving into distractions. Example: "I understand that you’re disappointed about not receiving a ten-page critique, but I have to emphasize the importance of breaking down our work into manageable steps."
●︎ A stands for appearing confident, meaning that you maintain direct speech and eye contact. Example: "I have provided editing strategies for dozens of new authors in your field, and I trust that we’ll figure out one that works for you—even if it’s different from what you were envisioning."
●︎ N stands for negotiating a solution with the other person, accepting that there may be alternatives that will allow you to get your wants and needs met. Example: "While a ten-page critique is off the table, how else do you think we can work together to get your editing needs met?"
Success-driven professionals often go through a lot of difficult change to claim our self-worth, our authority, and our power to serve. Part of this change includes responding assertively to criticism.
The three techniques I’ve described can help you to walk resolutely down your chosen path, allowing you to turn criticism into fuel for a successful and fulfilling career.
Read next: The Freedom of Asking for What You Need