How to Handle Criticism and Nonconstructive Feedback

By Nicole Wolfe

At one point or another, no doubt, you’ve flipped through the channels and seen a zebra instinctively fleeing a hungry lion. This reaction is part of a natural response to threats called the acute stress response—or more commonly, fight-flight-or-freeze—which is hard wired in the brains of humans and animals. And while taking flight from a lion is a zebra’s productive response to a threat, this response does not work so effectively in the workplace.

Unlike in the animal kingdom, the threats that induce the acute stress response at work are not life threatening. More often than not, these “threats” are merely criticisms of our work. When a boss or co-workers criticize us, we feel the same immediate stress that causes the zebra to flee. In the workplace, this automatic response is characterized by verbal defensiveness (fight), avoiding the situation (flight), or having no response at all (freeze). These responses do nothing more than leave us with a sinking feeling of regret that we could have handled ourselves better. Luckily, unlike the zebra, we have other options.

To respond gracefully to criticism, we must overcome the rash default modes of fight, flight, or freeze. Here’s how you can avoid these counter-productive responses:

1. Be prepared

To avoid being overwhelmed by criticism, it is vital to spend time now preparing yourself to receive it. Being prepared will make you far less likely to be caught off guard and to fall victim to fight-flight-or-freeze. First, visualize the experience of receiving criticism. Think of times in the past when you have been criticized: Was it in a meeting or a private conversation? Is there a particular individual you usually receive criticism from? Then create a plan of action for the types of experiences you are visualizing. Having a plan that you have already thought through will give you an alternative reaction to fight-flight-or-freeze. It may be particularly helpful to create some generic “back pocket” verbal responses that may be used in a variety of situations. This will give you something appropriate to say when you are tempted to argue, stop paying attention, or freeze up.


2. Keep things in perspective

The fight-flight-or-freeze response is a form of emotional hijacking that overwhelms your ability to gauge what an appropriate reaction is. It’s much easier to resist the urge to fight, flight, or freeze when you take a more holistic look at the situation. Rather than allowing yourself to be overcome by your strong emotions and thoughts of the implications of the criticism you received, count to twenty, take a step back, and look at things from a more productive perspective. Will blurting out a comeback serve you in the long run? What are the other options that you won’t regret? Even though it might feel good in the moment to let your emotions take control, a rash reaction will only make a bad situation worse. Looking at the big picture will prevent you from giving in to your impulses.

3. Know your physical reactions

Everyone experiences physical reactions to stress, whether becoming flushed, experiencing a racing heart, sweating, or shaking. These physical responses are designed to stimulate you to react to a threat. Although they are uncomfortable in a meeting, these reactions are important clues that something has triggered your stress response and you are vulnerable to an emotional hijacking. Getting to know your physical stress reactions will allow you to stop them and take control of your behavior before they hijack it. This awareness is essential if you want to take control of the situation before your emotions take control of you.

Unfortunately, criticism and nonconstructive feedback are realities we all must face from time to time. With these strategies at your disposal, you can face them without regret.




Nicole Wolfe, B.S.

Nicole Wolfe is a Professional Services Consultant at TalentSmartEQ. She received a distinction in psychology for her Bachelor of Science from Yale University where she developed an interest in Emotional Intelligence. Nicole’s thesis research covered prosocial emotions in relationships, including gratitude and altruism. TalentSmartEQ customers call on Nicole when they need help with an 360 degree feedback test, or DISC personality profile.

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