“Ditch the green skirt!”
Of the thousands of student comments I’ve received on course evaluations over 35 years of university teaching, that comment taught me the most about taking criticism. I was completely taken aback, yet I had no way of addressing the anonymous remark. It helped me realize something I’ve never forgotten: I can’t always control how I’m perceived, but I can control how I respond to feedback.
Criticism, whether deserved or not, whether in your personal or professional life, whether important or trivial, can be difficult to take. But learning to absorb and learn from it is key to your success. We all need to know how to accept criticism with grace. Here are 5 keys to keep in mind.
Ask for feedback. It’s not enough to simply handle criticism when it’s handed to you — you should also seek it out. Especially for people in power, hearing contrary opinions or criticisms makes you better at what you do. A student commented early in my career that I tended to drop my voice at the end of sentences. That meant she couldn’t always hear everything I said, especially in a large classroom. I was grateful for that and have remained more conscious of my volume ever since.
Stick with the facts. Some of my students would claim that I was never available to help them — even when I sat in my empty office during open hours or made special appointments for students who never showed up. I found that the most effective way to respond was to simply state my availability, without showing frustration or disappointment, and invite them to come see me during those times.
Be fair and listen with empathy. Some people will accuse you of being unfair for correcting or disagreeing with them. Check in with yourself and consider whether you truly acted unfairly. If you did, offer a genuine apology, then find a way to address the problem. If you believe you acted with fairness, calmly explain why you made the decision you did and why you cannot change it.
Stay on topic. Once, I had a student tell me: “You are so boring!” Some comments sting, but you can’t let them knock you off track. If you stay on topic and keep your mission and goals in mind (in my case, broadening my students’ perspectives), you can get back to the work.
Remove emotion and see the bigger picture. I learned this well as department chair. Faculty members and students would often come to me in anger, and it was easy to mistake their feelings as directed toward me. Their complaints were more often a reflection of something troubling in their own lives. When I was able to separate myself from the emotional content of their complaints, I was better able to address them.
Not all criticism is valid. Some is uninformed or based on prejudice, some is mean-spirited and some is simply false. But sometimes, criticism is right on the mark. Why does graciously accepting criticism matter? Most of us will get an earful now and then from coworkers, bosses, clients, family members and friends. We can dismiss these comments, or we can learn from them. If not for the criticism of my mentors, supervisors and students, I would be a far less effective teacher, writer and manager. There’s an old adage: “She can dish it out, but she can’t take it.” Be someone who can do both.
Susan A. Ross is Professor of Theology and a Faculty Scholar at Loyola University Chicago, where she previously served as Department Chair. She is the author of three books, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow through the OpEd Project.