The Art of Accepting Criticism – Part 1


It’s really wonderful to receive praise and accolades for our speeches and presentations. It feels great when everybody in the room seems to have enjoyed what we’ve had to say. It’s awesome when our audience has really connected with the message we were trying so hard to communicate.

And boy, does it ever suck when the opposite happens. Bombing is just not much fun, and it happens to even the best of us from time-to-time. Even worse is when somebody comes up afterwards and has the temerity to tell you exactly where and how you failed. One of the toughest lessons life offers us is this: Sometimes, the truth really hurts.

When I was doing my student teaching, I spent the first few weeks skating by on my natural presentation abilities. I wasn’t preparing the way I should have. I wasn’t putting together the kind of really quality lessons I was capable of doing. I wasn’t being a good teacher.

And my mentor teacher took notice.

She sat me down one afternoon, after a particularly bad day of really revolting teaching, and she chewed me out for half an hour. She pointed out my arrogance, my laziness, my weaknesses with managing the room, and my failures with my students. She ripped me a new one. She had a responsibility to her students, and to her profession, to make damn sure that I didn’t fail to do my job one moment longer.

It was every bit the ass-kicking I needed. My ego needed deflating. My attitude was getting in the way of my students’ education. What she said to me hurt like hell. Mostly because it was entirely true. And, while it was difficult to hear, what she said to me that afternoon changed more than just the way I approached my student teaching. It changed my life.

Over my years as an educator, a public speaking coach, a writer, and a designer I have come to value honest criticism much more than the accolades and applause. Honest criticism is, perhaps, the most important thing anybody can offer you. It is, without question, the thing that will make you better at what you do.

It’s tough to accept criticism. It’s hard to hear harsh words, or honest truths that are less-than-flattering. It can be a real blow to the ego to hear about what isn’t working. The greater the amount of time, effort, and energy we invest in something, the harder it can be to hear that what we’ve put out there just isn’t much good.

But learning to accept criticism, and learning how to use it as a tool for improvement is the thing that will help you improve beyond all else. So, how do we go about doing that?

Check Your Ego

The most important part of learning to accept criticism is that you must–MUST–separate your ego from your effort. The products of our efforts are often very personal. We pour our passion into our words, our presentations, our designs. Criticism can feel like a direct attack on us, and a referendum on our value.

In order to overcome the reaction that is attendant to that criticism, we have to divest our ego from our work product. We have to recognize that the criticism isn’t about us. It is about what we’ve created. Often, criticism is offered because of disappointment. Disappointment is a result of a failure to meet expectations. The thing which is most reflective of who we are isn’t the failed product we’ve created, but the fact that the critic had sufficient respect for who we are to expect more from us.

Allowing that separation gives us the perspective we need to take the criticism with grace, and apply it to improve upon the shortcomings of the product.

Recognize Intention

Television super-chef Gordon Ramsay pulls absolutely no punches. He berates, belittles, and befuddles any and all who fail to live up to his standards for quality in food. His words are cutting, and sometimes even outright vicious. The food that leaves his kitchen is to be perfect, and woe betide the hapless chef who fails to live up to that expectation.

Ramsay stirs controversy for his manner. It makes him an exciting figure to watch on television. But, more importantly, is the intention behind the brusque and explosive criticism.

Ramsay is an absolute perfectionist when it comes to food. He believes in food and flavor with the passion of a zealot. His tirades are filled with noble intention. He wants to bring out the absolute best in those with whom we works. He wants to create great dining experiences for customers. He wants to treat food with the respect that it deserves. Love him, or hate him, he is well-intentioned.

We have to recognize that nature in all of our critics. What they say may not be fun, or kind. But even the most hateful criticism can reveal areas where improvement can be sought after. While I don’t encourage “feeding the trolls”, and recognize that some folks will just never be completely satisfied, It’s important to take note of what the intent of the critique might be. Unless the critic is just out to be hurtful or rude, (and even, in some cases, when that happens) there is probably something worth hearing out.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article. If you have any secrets of your own for accepting and using criticism to improve your speaking, writing, etc. please leave them in the comments below.