Learning to give constructive criticism is a vital managerial tool because the last thing you need is someone getting defensive when you need them to learn how to improve their performance (in case you need a quick refresher check out this summary).

Learning to receive criticism is also a vital skill for developing your skills, especially when even poorly delivered criticism still has worthwhile feedback you can benefit from. I enjoyed this personal experience of overcoming defensiveness.

But there is some criticism that is just plain aggressive – a deliberate attack.

The problem is that even when this is true, it’s not always easy to be sure and anyway, it’s seldom in one’s interest to return fire.

This excellent 2015 article by Dick Grote in HBR outlines a simple strategy for dealing with criticism regardless of its intention. Here’s the headlines:

  • Listen carefully
  • Don’t get defensive
  • Ask for time

But what do you do when in the heat of the moment, you’ve forgotten those helpful pointers and you want to blurt out something grotesque that might cost you your job?

Well, then try this idea from Helen Villiers: reply to unconstructive criticism with this question:

“How is this meant to help me?”

You can frame it more politely, if you need to. I like that question because it is an invitation, it’s not defensive and it’s not an attack. But it certainly gets the rub!

And one more thing: don’t let what is said stew inside you.

Good or bad, criticism has a way of worming into self-recrimination. The best way to mitigate that is to talk it through with someone you trust.