How To Handle Your Critics Like a Pro, Not a Toddler

So you signed up for leadership, but you didn’t really sign up for all the criticism that came with it, did you?

And yet here you are.

Next question: did anything really prepare you for the emotional journey of leadership?

Nope. Me neither.

Criticism is an almost daily staple for most leaders. You get everything from side comments, to direct challenges, to people who walk out the door, to anonymous notes sent to you by people with no courage.

You dread it. I dread it. Who doesn’t?

In fact, it can completely derail your day, your week, and your work.

I can’t tell you how many times I have a completely sarcastic, immature and emotional response ready for my critics as soon as they sting me.

And, of course, it’s a horrendous mistake to ever let those comments see daylight. But in my head, it’s so easy to take revenge.

So what do you do when it comes your way?

First…Realize This

It’s easy to dream about working in a place where no one criticizes anyone.

And, as a result, more than a few leaders have left their current job find greener pastures where there won’t be as much opposition, only to be disappointed that criticism just seems to come with the territory wherever you go.

Ditto with starting your own venture. As long as you have customers and staff, you’ll have critics.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some toxic workplaces and there are definitely some toxic people. And there are healthy workplaces and healthy people.

But even in a healthy environment, criticism is inevitable.

So can you avoid criticism? Well, the best way to avoid significant critics is to do nothing significant.

But then all you end up with is regret.

So how do you deal with the criticism that will inevitably come your way?

The best way to avoid significant criticism is to do nothing significant. Click To Tweet

How To Handle Your Critics Like a Pro

The basic problem for me personally with criticism? Honestly, it makes me want to respond like a toddler would.

Criticism naturally makes me defend, deny, and if I’m having a bad day, it also makes me want to retaliate.

None of that is good.

And if you study leaders who don’t do well in the long run, they almost always tend to respond to critics with immaturity.

This is where emotional intelligence can be a leader’s best friend. And the good news is, emotional intelligence can be learned (here, for example, are 5 EI hacks that can help you grow as a leader).

Here are 5 ways to handle your critics like a pro.

1. Don’t Respond For 24 Hours. Just Don’t.

Every time you get a critical email, a critical comment, a critical text or phone call, something happens inside you, doesn’t it?

Your heart starts beating faster. You feel hurt, even crushed depending on what they said. And sometimes you get angry.

And usually, when that happens, your emotions derail your brain. At least they derail mine.

I learned years ago almost nothing good happens when I’m upset.

In an attempt to address the situation, I almost always make it worse. Even if I convince myself I’ll make it better, I usually don’t. Not when I’m upset.

So years ago, I made a rule.  When you feel an emotional reaction to criticism, don’t respond for 24 hours.

That’s easy in the case of an email, a text or written complaint. Just sleep on it.

But even when there’s a verbal exchange, just bite your tongue. Thank them. Say little or nothing. Don’t respond.

After 24 hours elapses, something amazing usually happens. You get your brain back.

A day later, you can respond reasonably and rationally to something that you once could only respond to emotionally.

You’ve slept on it. Hopefully, you’ve prayed about it. And maybe you’ve even talked to a few wise friends about how to respond with grace and integrity.

You’ve lost nothing.

And you’ve gained so much.

So wait. Just wait.

Nothing good happens when you're upset. So don't respond to a critic when you're upset. After a 24 hour delay, you get your brain back. Click To Tweet

2. Ask Yourself: Is There Any Truth In This?

During those 24 hours, you can start asking sensible questions, the chief of which is “Is there any truth in this?”

Sometimes there’s not. But often there is.

If you’re not sure, ask a friend or colleague. They may see what your critic sees.

Even if there’s just a nugget of truth, that nugget can help you grow into a better person and better leader. I had a situation recently where someone criticized some talks I gave. At first, I was completely defensive. Fortunately, I said nothing and didn’t respond. But the next day, after a good night’s sleep and some prayer, I realized they might be right about something. So I gave them that.

Other people loved the talks, but that doesn’t mean that his experience wasn’t valid. And when I looked in my heart on a good day, I saw something that the critic likely picked up on.

It made me a better leader because I became aware of something that would have been so easy to dismiss and blow off.

Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, and our critics help us become more self-aware.

Even if there’s zero truth in what the critic is saying, at least you searched. And by asking, you lost nothing.

And…there’s usually truth in what a critic is saying. But often it takes time to see it. So give yourself time.

There's usually truth in what a critic is saying. But often it takes time to see it. So give yourself time. Click To Tweet

3. Own What You Can

Own whatever part of the issue you can. Even if they’re only 1% right.

And resist the temptation to look to your fans to make you feel better.

If someone was offended by what you said, try to understand why. Own that piece, even if their reaction to what you did was a terrible overreaction.

Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame.

So, become a great leader, especially when it comes to criticism.

Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame. Click To Tweet

4. Reply Relationally

Just because they shot off an email in the dark of night doesn’t mean you should.

Nor should you send out a passive-aggressive social post. That’s the last thing the internet or the world needs.

I learned this strategy from Andy Stanley and have followed it ever since.

Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you.

Examples:

  • If they emailed you, call them. You’ll not only shock them, but you’ll quickly diffuse the situation. People are bolder on email than they ever are in a conversation. Nothing good regarding conflict ever happens on email.
  • If they stopped you in the hall and blasted you, take them out for coffee. Call them and tell them you would like to learn from them and address the issue in person.
  • If they got mad at a meeting, go for lunch after.

9 times out of 10, you will take the air out of the conflict balloon. And if they’re healthy, and you own whatever you can, you’ll be surprised at how it resolves the situation.

Nothing good ever happens on email or social when you're mad. Click To Tweet

5. Discard The Crud

Even if you find some truth in what they said, own what you can and reply graciously and relationally, sometimes there’s still crud in the mix.

Discard it.

Here’s my theory: 95% of the conflict in your organization has nothing to do with your organization.

Your critic might have just had a huge fight with his daughter before he sat down at the keyboard to blast you. Your critic might simply be an angry person who has issues stapled to her issues. And you got an unfair shot. Or he may be someone who’s simply angry at the world.

95% of the conflict in your organization has nothing to do with your organization. Click To Tweet

We can’t make the assumption that all our critics are crazy, frustrated or need counseling. That’s an easy crutch too many leaders lean on.

But sometimes good people say and do bad things.

And sometimes the blast comes with zero basis in reality.

When that happens, you need to let the crud go. You’ve owned as much as you can of it, so let the rest fall away.

Pray about it. Talk to friends about it. Grieve the hurt (seriously…do this) and then let it go.

Don’t carry today’s baggage into tomorrow.

Don’t carry today’s baggage into tomorrow. Click To Tweet

Find More Time For Yourself…Starting Today

It can be hard to find time even to breathe so that you can process things like criticism in a healthy way.

Let me show you how to change that and find time for yourself, for better leadership and far more time for your family.

My High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Carey’s course was the perfect way for our team to prepare for the new year. Our team, both collectively and individually, took a fresh look at maximizing our time and leadership gifts for the year ahead. I highly recommend this leadership development resource for you and your team.” Jeff Henderson, Gwinnett Church, Atlanta Georgia

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Tanglewood Church, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Invitation Church, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Red Rock Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reinvent yourself?

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What Are You Learning? 

I’ve found that by following these steps, I also end up doing better than I would if I acted in the moment.

I’d love to hear what you’re learning in this.

Leave a comment!

13 Comments

  1. Mark on April 23, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Sometimes what you perceive as criticism is really a problem that has been noticed by a lesser person and comes with a suggestion of how to fix it. This is too often unwanted instead of appreciated. Besides, the day that what you view as criticism stops is the day that people get so tired of noticing the problems and trying to find solutions and being ignored or punished for speaking out that they quit telling you because it is safer for them. At that point, people start leaving with no words, and the organization starts falling apart and you will never know why.

  2. This Is My South Bay on April 16, 2019 at 8:50 pm

    At the end of the day it’s not personal. It has to work for both sides. Good article.

  3. Matt on April 11, 2019 at 9:47 am

    Hi Carey,
    Thank you for this post. Criticism is something every leader deals with, as you know. The more I can learn about how to best handle that criticism, the better. I especially appreciate the balance you present of recognizing what is true and knowing that 95% of the conflict has nothing to do with the organization. Quick question, any suggestions on how to respectfully address a superior who doesn’t take criticism well? A couple examples, when a superior gives too much weight to the criticism of 1% or if they simply chooses to ignore all criticism. How do you help them or do you? Thanks!

    • Mark on April 23, 2019 at 11:04 am

      I mentioned a problem and offered a solution on a few occasions and then said never again. My words were not wanted, and I was going to wind up in a bad predicament. I quit talking. It is safer.

  4. David on April 10, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Carey,
    Thank you so much for this post, it is exactly what I needed at this time. I really liked the point about asking what truth is there in what is said and if there is, then being honest about it with ourselves, owning it and being willing to change.
    I have faced some criticism this week and I had to look at my actions honestly. When I did that I realised I had acted unethically and I was horrified. I am planning a time to discuss these issues next week where I will admit I was wrong and seek ways to make myself better.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 11, 2019 at 6:32 am

      Way to go David. We all make mistakes, but to admit them in a fantastic moment as a leader. It builds trust…it doesn’t diminish it.

  5. Jared Carl on April 10, 2019 at 7:14 pm

    Hey Carey,

    Great read! As someone who is (I think) an 8 like you, how do you give critiques to someone who is more sensitive and feeling driven? I have sensitive types on my team and want to make sure I’m being constructive and not destructive. Thanks!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 11, 2019 at 6:33 am

      Watch for tone, and affirm the person…address the problem. Separate the two.

      • Jared Carl on April 11, 2019 at 8:51 am

        Thank you for the helpful reply and all the work you do. It really has helped me in my leadership. Blessings!

  6. C Caronna on April 10, 2019 at 6:01 pm

    Excellent!!! This should be required teaching for every leader.

  7. Dillon Smith on April 10, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    So appreciate this post!

  8. Gwen on April 10, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    I am very thankful you so willingly share the wisdom God has taught you. It is a great help! Praying for you.

  9. Eric on April 10, 2019 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for this!

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