How can I get better at receiving criticism?

A five-step process to help you turn negative feedback into a powerful fuel for creativity and growth. 

“I love being criticized!”

Said no one ever. 

Nobody enjoys hearing negative feedback. But I’ve been thinking about criticism a lot ever since I talked with ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas on my podcast, How Leaders Lead.

Now, this is a guy who gets all kinds of criticism from every corner of the internet. I had to ask him how he deals with it.

I learned he uses a three-step process to consider it. First, he asks if it’s right. Then, he asks if it’s reasonable. Finally, he asks if it’s unreasonable.

We’ll get more into the details of that in a minute, but first, I just want to pause and highlight what Jay’s doing here.

He is using a mindful process to deal with criticism.

As you know, that’s not always the case. When we hear criticism, it’s natural to have that knee jerk reaction. We get defensive. We feel hurt. Or we just roll our eyes and think, “This guy’s an idiot!” 

But Jay has found a way to create a mindful pause between the criticism he receives and the way he responds to it.

That’s a leadership practice we can all benefit from.

So in my newsletter today, I want to expound on that idea and give you five steps to process criticism at work and even leverage it to help you grow both yourself and your business.

1. Accept that it comes with the territory.

If you want to learn how to embrace criticism, you have to start by accepting it as a part of your leadership reality.

Leaders make big things happen. And wherever there’s significant progress, there will also be disagreement.

The sooner you realize that there’s no avoiding criticism, the better off you’ll be.

The great commentator Jim Nantz shared some wisdom with me when I asked him how he deals with critics. 

“Critics are a part of the game,” he told me. “If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have people that are not gonna quite see it the way that you see it.”

Let me put it another way: if you’re not receiving any critical feedback as a leader, you’re probably not pursuing the kind of big ideas that will create meaningful change.

2. Ask if it’s reasonable.

As a leader, you open yourself up to all kinds of feedback – from employees, customers, stakeholders, and the public at large. 

Not all of it is going to be helpful. 

That’s one thing I love about Jay Bilas’ process I mentioned earlier. He takes a moment to ask if the criticism is reasonable or unreasonable.

“If it's reasonable,” he says, “I need to consider it and decide for myself whether it's right or wrong, and then and then act upon it.”

“If it's unreasonable, I dismiss it right away, because I don't think I can reason with ‘unreasonable’. And I don't want to let that into my memory bank.”

This is a vital checkpoint. It lets you validate what’s worth considering versus what’s completely unreasonable. You can keep your headspace healthy and clear of baseless negativity while also staying open-minded.

3. Get curious.

When someone disagrees with you or criticizes your position, it’s easy to get defensive.

But here’s a question to ask instead: What if they’re right?

When you get curious about the criticism, it becomes a springboard for creativity. 

Often, it leads you to an even more powerful idea. Or, you might initiate a conversation that leads to greater consensus. You could even uncover and address big obstacles before they derail your plans.

In her book, In Defense of Troublemakers, psychologist Charlan Jeanne Nemeth says, “Good decision-making, at its heart, is divergent thinking. When we think divergently, we think in multiple directions, seek information and consider facts on all sides of the issue, and think about the cons as well as the pros.”

That’s exactly what you do when you embrace criticism. You open up your mind to think differently. You avoid the perilous “groupthink” that often robs teams of their innovative power. And you build trust with your team as they feel heard.

4. Be mindful of how you receive criticism. 

If you want to lead well, you need to surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you the truth.

We all have blind spots as leaders. We all need more perspective than we can possibly possess on our own.

But what if the people around you don’t feel free to point out those blind spots and express dissenting opinions? When that happens, you lose valuable perspectives that lead to new ideas and help avoid missteps.

That’s why it’s important for you to thank people who give you feedback – and do it publicly whenever you can.

This sends a message that you’re receptive to feedback. Doing this regularly creates an environment where everyone knows they can speak up. Instead of being a victim of your own blind spots, you’ll get the very best ideas that help your business reach its goals.

5. Balance criticism with your own convictions.

Of course, like so many things in the life of a leader, receiving criticism is a balancing act.

This is a big takeaway I learned from David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs. 

“Leadership is about taking people where they don’t want to go,” he said.

“When you have to make difficult leadership decisions, there are going to be times when people doubt and people criticize. You have to be willing to listen to that. But you also have to stay true to your convictions and not let the noise take you off course.” 

As you listen to critical feedback, remember to balance it with your own convictions and vision. Don’t let criticism be an excuse to back down from a tough decision.

Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about criticism. I love the analogy he uses: 

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things.”

Feedback – both good and bad! –  is one of the richest gifts we can receive as leaders.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not painful! Trust me, I know – it can really sting.

But when you have a way to process it mindfully, you can reframe it for the gift that it is and use to improve yourself and your business.

It takes self-awareness, humility, an open mind, and lots of courage. 

But it also opens up new worlds of growth, creativity, and trust with everyone in your life.

Try these ideas – and by all means, leave me a comment and share your thoughts! Tell me how you process criticism or share a story of how criticism helped you grow as a leader.