Your day has started well. You’ve woken up feeling energised and your focus has been razor-sharp. You’ve rattled a number of tasks off your to-do list already, propelling you far ahead of schedule. Just then, an email alert catches your eye – it’s from your manager: “Are you free for a talk?” This is the point where some of us experience a sudden pang of dread; we don’t know what's coming but at the same time, we also know that whatever is coming isn’t going to be good.
For many of us, a moment like this is enough for our primitive fight-or-flight system to activate. Perhaps there’s criticism looming on the horizon - and criticism, of course, can be very difficult to receive. What’s happened here, however, can actually be a positive thing. Upon receiving this email, we’ve automatically engaged in a process of preparation for that criticism.
Preparation is a process that we have control over; for example, reflect on why your manager may be critical of you or something you did. Perhaps there are environmental influences at play and your manager may simply be stressed. Perhaps your manager is a perfectionist and is therefore slightly more critical by nature? In this case they’re not critical of you specifically, they’re critical of everyone (including themselves) and all that goes on around them. This thinking process may help us to re-centre ourselves, thereby softening our apprehension on the run-up to a critical conversation.
But there’s a catch; what if you can’t prepare for it? What if a flurry of criticism strikes right out of the blue? The key here is to avoid reacting prematurely and defensively. Often at this moment, we’re provoked and charged with emotion, and it can be difficult to hold back. However, this rarely results in a positive and productive outcome for either party. Instead, though it may be difficult at first, actively listen to what the other person has to say. This is merely their personal interpretation of events. Ask questions to clarify your understanding of where they’re coming from, gather the details of their account and restate the problem back to ensure you’re both on the same page. This behaviour initiates a constructive dialogue which would be unlikely to follow an immediate reactionary and emotional defence upon receiving the criticism in the first instance.
Having gathered their account of the events, this is the optimal place to decide on whether you agree or disagree with the criticism. If you don’t agree, you’ll be better equipped to form a cohesive and compelling defence when you’ve re-centred yourself, listened to what the other party had to say and reflected on the situation in more detail anyway. Similarly, if you feel you should offer your account or defend your actions, there will be more likelihood for the other party to reciprocate in giving you the time and space to speak.
Criticism doesn’t hold a great deal of value if there is no agreement on how better to act going forward. Negotiate with the other party on what behaviour is best to abide by in the future should this situation come up again. Be sure to glean specifics; a sweeping, general statement has much less impact and is more likely to be misinterpreted.
So, whether you’re prepared or not, criticism can indeed be difficult to swallow. There isn’t much doubt about that. But by regulating your emotions in the moment, allowing the other party to offer their full account, and negotiating on the best way to move forward, you can secure a positive outcome for everyone moving forward.