Responding calmly and rationally to unwarranted criticism
Recently I was leading a discussion over how to teach fairly some complicated concepts. When all of a sudden the individual on my left burst out in anger with accusations about my motives which were completely untrue. All eyes were on me. What would I say? How would I react? I am proud to say I followed the step below and came out of the assault unscathed.
You may have experienced something similar. Maybe you gave a presentation at work, outlining a new marketing plan, or an idea for a new product. You think all is going well when one of the participants delivers a scathing critique. Each point you believe is either completely incorrect or a simple misunderstanding of your position. Everyone one now looking at you. What will you say? How will you react?
How you react in these situations have a tremendous impact on your career and relationships not only with the one who has attacked you but, if there are witnesses, every one who witnesses the attack and everyone who hear about the exchange.
When you are unjustly criticized emotions run high and therefore it is not the best idea to trust your instincts. Your initial reaction has the largest impact on how things will turn out. It alone has the ability to make things better or worse. Here is my recommendation on how to fight against the urge to strike out.
1: Remain calm
The most important thing to do is remain calm. Remaining calm and respectful, particularly if the other party does not, will help defuse the situation and can even rally support. Give the impression of taking the comments thoughtfully and respectfully. Even if they are blatantly false. Ask why does this person thinks you are such and such or you have done such and such. Regardless of how off base and vicious the attack, the attacker believes they are justified in the attack. Try to find out why?
When we receive negative criticism anger or feelings of inadequacy well up in us. If we expressing these emotions we only dig ourselves a deeper into a hole from which we may not be able to crawl. Have your response be courtesy and take the higher ground. So just pause, taking couple of deep, quiet breaths through your nose will help calm you down.
2: Asked to have the point repeated or clarified
Give yourself some time to think. You do not have to develop a response on the spot. One way to get some time is simply to calmly repeat the criticism back to the individual in your own words. And then ask if you understand correctly. Make eye contact and in a non-aggressive non-threatening tone, say: “So, if I understand your correctly you’re saying…,” and put his criticisms in your words. The goal is to take the focus off of personalities, and place it on the issue at hand.
When you put the criticism in your own words, do so accurately, do not over state you case. Simply reword the point to the best of your ability. If he claims your proposal will not bring the results you are claiming. Do not say “So what you are saying is this will destroy the company.” Exaggerating the criticism will make you appear defensive and looking for a fight – rather than being the cool, calm and rational one.
If you do not understand the point or can not make the connects your assailant is making. Simply asking for more information can help A simple question,”Can you tell me more,” works wonders. If what is being said is truly ridiculous. He may sudden realize he is in an untenable situation.
The goal is to take the focus off of you and your reaction and put it on the his criticisms.
3: Examine both perspectives
The goal is not to have either one of you leave bloody and beaten the goal is to identify and address the issue. So once you have taken the focus off of the personalities place the focus squarely on the issue at hand. This is a good time to open a real discussion of the critique. Depending on the situation you can start off with phrases like: “I can see how you might get that idea, I probably haven’t properly explained that;” “I understand what you are saying and that is why…;” “That an interesting perspective. I understand how you feel.” The idea is to establish a rapport and showing respect is key even if you have not been shown any. Once you have demonstrated respect give him the opportunity to return the favor.
4: Politely Move on
Even in the best of worlds with the best of tactics, things do not always work out like we would like to have them work out. You can have executed the first three steps flawlessly and you are at an impasse. You have remained calm and demonstrated respect, as you reworded the criticism in your own words. You have calmly and without shame shown you understand their perspective. Even after all this your critic holds firm. This is time for a graceful exit. You can say some thing like: “That’s certainly something to think about going forward;” “I appreciate the feedback;” “We definitely aught to consider that in the next version.” You have just positioned yourself as someone who is genuinely trying to do the best job possible. It also places the focus on the future actions and allow you to move on.