zenhabits : breathe

How to Accept Criticism with Grace and Appreciation

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on twitter or identica.

Every day, I get emails and comments that are amazingly positive and encouraging, and in truth these messages are the very thing that sustains my blogging. However, I also get negative comments now and then: criticism of my writing, and not nice criticism either.

How do you deal with criticism? I think the first reaction for most of us is to defend ourselves, or worse yet to lash back.

And yet, while criticism can be taken as hurtful and demoralizing, it can also be viewed in a positive way: it is honesty, and it can spur us to do better. It’s an opportunity to improve.

Recently, I ran an “Ask the Readers” post asking for suggestions for improvement, after receiving a few critical emails and comments. I responded to one of the critics with a “thank you” and asked him to comment in the Ask the Readers thread.

The reader emailed me back, and here was his response:

After sending my email, I felt I might have been a little harsh. But now, after reading your response, I think you would have the perfect qualities to write an article or two about taking criticism with grace and appreciation.

I really liked that thought, so here is that post he suggested: how to take criticism with grace and appreciation.

Stop Your First Reaction
If your first reaction is to lash back at the person giving the criticism, or to become defensive, take a minute before reacting at all. Take a deep breath, and give it a little thought.

Personally, I tend to get a little angry when I’m criticized. But I have also taught myself not to react right away. For example, I’ll let a critical email sit in my inbox for at least an hour before replying. Or I’ll walk away from someone instead of saying something I’ll regret later.

That cooling off time allows me to give it a little more thought beyond my initial reaction. It allows logic to step in, past the emotion. I don’t have anything against emotion, but when it’s a negative emotion, sometimes it can cause more harm than good. So I let my emotions run their course, and then respond when I’m calmer.

Turn a Negative Into a Positive
One of the keys to my success in anything I do is my ability to find positive things in things that most people see as a negative. Sickness forces me to stop my exercise program? That’s a welcome rest. Tired of my job? That’s a time to rediscover what’s important and to look for a better job. Supertyphoon ruined all my possessions? This allowed me to realize that my stuff wasn’t important, and to be thankful that my loved ones were still alive and safe.

You can do the same thing with criticism: find the positive in it. Sure, it may be rude and mean, but in most criticism, you can find a nugget of gold: honest feedback and a suggestion for improvement.

For example, this criticism: “You write about the same things over and over and your posts are boring and stale.”

Can be read: “I need to increase the variety of my posts and find new ways of looking at old things.”

That’s just one example of course — you can do that with just about any criticism. Sometimes it’s just someone having a bad day, but many times there’s at least a grain of truth in the criticism.

See it as an opportunity to improve — and without that constant improvement, we are just sitting still. Improvement is a good thing.

Thank the Critic
Even if someone is harsh and rude, thank them. They might have been having a bad day, or maybe they’re just a negative person in general. But even so, your attitude of gratitude will probably catch them off-guard.

And you know what? My habit of thanking my critics has actually won a few of them over. They became friends of mine, and eventually a couple of them became some of my biggest proponents. All because of a simple act of saying thank you for the criticism. It’s unexpected, and often appreciated.

And even if the critic doesn’t take your “thank you” in a good way, it’s still good to do — for yourself. It’s a way of reminding yourself that the criticism was a good thing for you, a way of keeping yourself humble.

Learn from the Criticism
After seeing criticism in a positive light, and thanking the critic, don’t just move on and go back to business as usual. Actually try to improve.

That’s a difficult concept for some people, because they often think that they’re right no matter what. But no one is always right. You, in fact, may be wrong, and the critic may be right. So see if there’s something you can change to make yourself better.

And then make that change. Actually strive to do better.

When I received criticism that my posts weren’t as good as they could be, I strove to improve. I tried hard to write better posts. Now, did I actually accomplish that? That’s a matter of opinion — some will say no, while others seemed to enjoy the posts. Personally, I’ve been rather proud of some of these posts, and I’m glad I made the extra effort.

Be the Better Person
Too many times we take criticism as a personal attack, as an insult to who we are. But it’s not. Well, perhaps sometimes it is, but we don’t have to take it that way. Take it as a criticism of your actions, not your person. If you do that, you can detach yourself from the criticism emotionally and see what should be done.

But the way that many of us handle the criticisms that we see as personal attacks is by attacking back. “I’m not going to let someone talk to me that way.” Especially if this criticism is made in public, such as in the comments of a blog. You have to defend yourself, and attack the attacker … right?

Wrong. By attacking the attacker, you are stooping to his level. Even if the person was mean or rude, you don’t have to be the same way. You don’t have to commit the same sins.

Be the better person.

If you can rise above the petty insults and attacks, and respond in a calm and positive manner to the meat of the criticism, you will be the better person. And guess what? There are two amazing benefits of this:

  1. Others will admire you and think better of you for rising above the attack. Especially if you remain positive and actually take the criticism well. This has happened to me, when people actually complimented me on how I handled attacking comments.
  2. You will feel better about yourself. By participating in personal attacks, we dirty ourselves. But if we can stay above that level, we feel good about who we are. And that’s the most important benefit of all.

How do you stay above the attacks and be the better person? By removing yourself from the criticism, and looking only at the actions criticized. By seeing the positive in the criticism, and trying to improve. By thanking the critic. And by responding with a positive attitude.

A quick example: Someone criticizes one of my posts by saying, “You’re an idiot. I don’t understand what x has to do with y.”

My typical response will be to first, ignore the first sentence. And second, to say something like, “Thanks for giving me an opportunity to clarify that. I don’t think I made it as clear as I should have. What x has to do with y is … blah blah. Thanks for the great question!”

And by ignoring the insult, taking it as an opportunity to clarify, thanking the critic, using the opportunity to explain my point further, and staying positive, I have accepted the criticism with grace and appreciation. And in doing so, remained the better person, and felt great about myself.

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