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Responding to criticism with grace

I was working hard at my job with the best intensions. I was on multiple projects, speaking up at meetings, kicking goals.  It seemed to all be going well… until it wasn’t! Disappointment was waiting for me just around the corner. Slowly, but surely, over a period of about a year, my relationship with the leader above me began to break down. The reason for the breakdown was that I had not met their unspoken expectations (and they had not met mine). 

After many and varied attempts to repair the fractured relationship, I met with the senior leader to discuss if and how we could still make things work… or so I thought. It was a very one-sided meeting. He used this last attempt at repairing our relationship as a platform to list all his grievances about me personally. It hurt to sit and listen to a long list of his complaints. I learned from this meeting that his perspective was clearly very different from mine in regards to several situations he addressed. I apologised for my part of the breakdown. He did not. I left feeling misunderstood, mis-judged and criticised.

So what did I do? How did I take it? At first, I was terribly upset and couldn’t stop thinking about it. My heart was beating so fast, I just needed to lie down. After the initial sting of criticism and rejection had dulled, I took time to reflect, meditate and pray. I took each point he raised and asked the question "Was it true?". One by one, as I reflected, I got the clarity on where my leader was out of line and speaking from his own place of hurt. I simply needed to forgive him and let it go. I also saw the areas that my leader had made a valid point and that I needed to learn and grow.

If you’ve ever pursued academic study, you will have been taught to ‘judge’ and ‘analyse’ for truth and accuracy. It is, however, also important to learn the difference between critiquing and criticising something or someone.

– Criticism finds fault / Critique finds what’s working

– Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand / Critique asks for clarification

So, how can we apply the same principles to people and our relationships at work?

The next time you are receiving criticism, take notice of your physical, emotional and spiritual responses. Be aware of what is happening in your body, your heart rate, and your spirit. Is your heart beating super fast? Are your hands shaking and sweating? Do you feel like a thousand daggers are piercing your heat? How you respond to criticism is an indication of how secure you are in your identity.

Here are two examples of extreme reactions to criticism:

1. You take the criticism personally. You can’t stop thinking about it as it keeps gnawing at your brain. It has a deep, negative, impact on you. You judge yourself harshly, assuming what they said was true. This can appear over-sensitive and like a ‘victim’ to the other person.

2. You brush it off, ignoring it completely. You don’t listen to what is said and carry on, same as always, or respond with lost of justifications for your behaviour. This can often appear defensive or aloof to the other person. 

So, if not either of those 2 extremes, what would be a better response? Here are a few tips:

1. Hear the person out, then take time to reflect. If the criticism was particularly cutting, give yourself some time and space to process the remarks.

2. Ask “Is what is being spoken truthful, and intended to help me? Or is it being said to hurt?” Listen to the ‘spirit’ and intentions behind the words. 

3. If something resonates as true, humbly take it on board as an opportunity to learn and grow. Remember, even when you may not have intended to offend or hurt the person, their perception and feelings may be valid.

4. Stay humble and open to feedback as this enables us to grow. This can be painful, but is ultimately a rewarding process. 

5. Remember: You know yourself better than anyone else. Do not crumble at the words of someone who hasn’t lived your life. Focus on your own voice.  

Growing through difficult situations and learning to use criticism is not an easy task. At Release Leadership, we offer professional coaching and supervision to guide you through the storms of life and work. Our leadership coaching and supervision can help you identify and navigate through difficult decisions, and relationships so you can be fulfilled and successful in your life and work. 

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