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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Dealing with unfair criticism gracefully: 4 strategies [Wise Wednesdays]

Sometimes, people can lash out aggressively (which may have nothing to do with you) and you need to shield yourself somehow.

Below are 4 strategies you can use in the heat of the moment. They’re based on 25 years of experience in public-facing, service-driven work and extensive training in communication and behaviour change.

You're probably doing some of these already and perhaps not realising why they work.

[Read on or watch the video]

WARNING: The strategies below are simply suggestions to illustrate how you might handle unfair criticism rather than phrases you would reproduce exactly. The context and your assessment of the other person must inform what you do in the moment. But as they say in the military: “In battle, you don't rise to your standards, you fall to your level of training.” So here’s your drill!

Let’s say someone comes up to you after a presentation and says: “I didn’t like your talk, your speaking skills suck”.

Ouch. But OK.

Breathe and shift the situation with one of these 4 responses:

1) Stand your ground by saying something like: “Hey, thanks for your feedback. I really enjoyed giving the talk and I might reflect on it.”

- The “might” is crucial because it keeps you in control of your experience and creates some distance between you and them.

2) Deflect attention by saying something like: “Yes, it’s such a tough business we’re in, isn’t it?”

- Deflecting onto the bigger picture helps emphasise connection over separation and expands the focus of the conversation.

3) Redirect attention back at them by saying something like: "Thanks for the feedback. Is this something that you’ve worked on yourself?”

- Say this with genuine curiosity, in which case they may start talking about themselves. If said with sarcasm, it may escalate the tension though…

4) Posture (a little) e.g. through feigned ignorance and signal that your attention isn’t available to interact with theirs by saying something like: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Could you repeat what you said?”

- Few people will or they will change tack. Again, calibrate your tone to achieve the effect you want. Of course, you could ignore the whole thing but often that isn't an option and tension lingers in the air.

Remember your tone of voice and body language are >90% of the message. Slow down and look them in the eye.

Be fluid but deliberate – like a ninja, Zen master or even a magician. It’s the flow of attention that matters not brute force or defensiveness. Practise with a friend and have fun with it.

A question redirects attention

Notice that most of the strategies involve asking a question. A question takes the attention off you and puts it back onto the person criticising you. This rebalances the flow of the situation. You can use this in any conversation and even in interviews where asking for clarification is a legitimate question!

The best, most generative interactions have a back-and-forth flow. Unfair criticism is an excess of attention on you. But you can rebalance the flow with one of the strategies. If you don’t know what to do, remember you can just ask a question.

Hope this helps and use these strategies ethically!


PS. If you’re wondering what people are doing when their cameras are off at your Zoom meeting; or if you want to facilitate more meaningful and productive spaces that help your team bond and work better, join us for the Leaders Circle on September 1st. Get one of the remaining 3 spaces.

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