When we receive criticism, our instinct is to protect ourselves. Typically, we produce an excuse, counter with a complaint about the other person, get angry, or dismiss the criticism as invalid.
"This is why most of us need to learn a structured process for being on the receiving end of a difficult conversation, just like we do for initiating one," writes Richard Gallagher in his book, How to Tell Anyone Anything
Here are four ways to respond effectively to criticism: Paraphrase.
Often, criticism renders us either momentarily speechless or primed to fight back. That's one reason this first step is so powerful: not only does it diffuse a potentially charged atmosphere, it requires almost no thought. You're simply going to take what the other person said and repeat it back in your own words. Your response should begin with "It sounds like…" or "I can see that…" You aren't agreeing or apologizing or taking blame for anything; you are, however, lowering the other person's defenses by "understanding and welcoming what he or she has to say," says Gallagher. Listen.
The second step is the most difficult. Once you've paraphrased the criticism, stop talking. Hand the floor back to the other person and listen. "We all share a common universal urge to blurt out things to defend ourselves," acknowledges Gallagher. It is "one of our most basic instincts. It feels logical and natural. Unfortunately, it also works completely against us." By listening fully instead of talking, you not only make the other person feel better, you get more honesty and better information that will help you understand exactly how to respond. Acknowledge.
Next, you're going to acknowledge the criticism. Again, you're not agreeing, you're simply acknowledging and validating the other person's point. For instance, when someone complains that the project failed because of you, acknowledgement might sound like this: "This project was a disappointment to all of us. I'll be glad to walk you through what happened." Or if someone says your way of doing something makes no sense, an acknowledging statement would be one such as, "I can see where some people might think it's counterintuitive to do it this way." Acknowledgement is powerful because it enables the other person to feel understood and respected and puts the conversation on safe ground. Negotiate.
If you agree with the other person, then this last step is easy. For instance, a simple response such as, "You're right. I should close my door when having private conversations. Thank you for bringing it to my attention," is all that's needed when you agree that the person has a good point.
It's trickier when we completely disagree, however. In these cases, our instinct is to frame our responses in terms of what we can't do: they want X and you cannot do X. Instead, switch to can-do language. For instance, when someone wants projects turned around quicker, but you're so swamped you can barely meet deadlines as it is, can-do framing would sound like this: "I can let you know exactly where you stand relative to my workload." Or if someone feels you're too soft on your sales reps, but you feel the other person resembles a drill sergeant, a can-do response would be something along these lines: "I would like to hear what has and hasn't worked for you."
You'll notice that each of these steps is simple, logical, and free of emotion. It's the opposite of what we normally do in difficult conversations. And it works. Gallagher promises that once you get used to using this four-step response, you will "become amazed at how comfortable you are with anything that another person could possibly say to you."