A Question to Help You With Criticism

women who ask negotiation advice

Have you ever received criticism that catches you off guard, makes your heart race, your palms sweat, or your stomach drop? Nobody likes criticism. It can be uncomfortable and downright painful at times.

Yet criticism is handed out freely in the work world - by bosses, clients, or colleagues. How it lands with the person receiving the criticism is often not even considered.

So are you supposed to just get a thick skin?

Well, there’s a question that will help you sort it out.

What am I making this mean?

When you receive criticism that leaves you feeling exposed, embarrassed or silenced, ask yourself, “What am I making this mean?”

Often, how we interpret the criticism is what makes it so painful, not the criticism itself. We create a story about what the criticism means about who we are as a person.

My client Vita (not her real name) came to a consulting session feeling defeated by some criticism she’d just received.

Vita is a senior associate in a litigation section of a law firm. She was responsible for drafting a summary judgment motion for a big client and had been reviewing the case law and preparing the draft for months. No one else at the firm was familiar with this particular area of the law and she’d essentially become the firm expert responsible for creating their legal strategy.

Two weeks before the brief was due, she circulated her draft to the team and received hardly any comments back. Then a week before the deadline the lead partner on the case finally give her his comments. He’d redlined almost the entire brief and peppered it with comments about the legal strategy being flawed. He asked another partner to redraft the brief.

Vita felt angry that she hadn’t been given a chance to re-write the brief and ashamed that she’d been criticized in this way.

When she considered what she was making the criticism mean, her response was, “I screwed up. I’m not a good lawyer. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.”

She made a leap that so many of us make. She assumed that she’d made a mistake – that she was in the wrong. She assumed that the criticism was valid and reflected on her capabilities as a lawyer.

Was it really true that she'd screwed up?  Did she have any evidence that that was true?

Vita came around to the idea that the criticism was the opinion of one person.

Other Interpretations

What are other possible interpretations of the situation?

• The partner hasn’t read the relevant case law and doesn’t understand the legal arguments in this particular area of law.

• The partner has a different strategy in mind that he believes will work better.

• The style in which Vita presented the arguments didn’t persuade the partner.

• The partner was having a bad day (a personal or professional problem came up).

• The partner was feeling threatened and wanted to assert his power.

There are dozens of other possible interpretations that we could come up with.

Of course, Vita didn’t want to simply ignore the criticism she’d received, rationalize it away, or lay blame on anyone else. She wanted to improve and learn from the criticism she’d received if it was indeed constructive.

After our conversation, she decided that she was going to go back to the partner to ask him more follow up questions so that she could more fully understand the criticism and see if there was an opportunity to continue working on the brief.

Vita might not be able to re-write the brief this time. She can, however, decide not to see herself as a terrible lawyer and recognize that she’d worked hard and put her best work forward. She can determine if there are things she wants to change or improve. 

Take what's helpful and let go of the rest

Recognize what the criticism is about and what it’s not about. Ask, "what am I making this mean?" Then take some time to step back and parse out what’s true for you. Decide what criticism you find valid, valuable or helpful. Let go of what’s not helpful. And then reject any painful stories that you’ve made up.