how to take criticism gracefully

Posts this week will include some reprints of older posts that I still love. This post was originally published on July 4, 2007.

If your manager takes the time to give you feedback, looking petulant and defensive and perhaps even outright pissed off — as someone did to me last week — isn’t going to help you.

It’s not that you just have to sit back and take it if you disagree with the criticism you’re hearing; you can say that you have a different point of view. But it’s all in how you do it, and it’s especially in your tone.

Bad: Looking furious
Good: “I’m glad you’re telling me this. From my point of view, I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”

Bad: Getting defensive
Good: “I hadn’t realized it was coming across that way, so I’m glad to know. From my perspective, it seems like (fill in the blank with whatever your perspective is).”

Bad: Responding with a brusque “okay” and nothing more (this makes it look like you’re more interested in just getting the hell out of your boss’ office than in actually processing the feedback)
Good: Telling your boss what you’re going to do in response, even if it’s just to say you need to give it some thought.

Be glad your manager is giving you feedback. Plenty don’t bother and just leave you to wonder why you keep getting crappy raises. The managers who take the time to give you honest feedback are the ones you want (assuming they’re not crazy, vindictive, etc.).

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. Catherine

    “…leave you to wonder why you keep getting crappy raises.” I would love a job where I got even crappy raises. My workplace doesn’t even do cost of living increases. Yay for state universities!

  2. Brightwanderer

    What would you say was the best way to reply if you don’t have an answer like “from my perspective, X” – as in, your manager gives you criticism on something and you know (and have probably known all along) that you should really have been doing something about it/not doing it? I’ve once or twice been given criticism to which, in all honesty I can only reply “You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” followed up by making sure it doesn’t happen again – but it’s hard to get those words out in the first rush of guilt/embarrassment when you know you don’t really have an excuse. Would you still recommend going with “I need to think about it” to give yourself time to get over the knee-jerk defensive reaction?

    And the other end of the scale – what about when a manager drops criticism on you that comes out of nowhere, or is based on hearsay, or is factually untrue? You can’t really defend yourself with anything other than “that isn’t actually true” – which in my experience comes off sounding too defensive or like you can’t take criticism – but if you apologise or try to give your viewpoint, you’re accepting the basic truth of the comment. (E.g. – “You need to stop wearing inappropriate X to work.” “What? But – I’ve never worn X. When have you seen me wearing X?” “Someone else in the organisation complained about it.” “But I really have never worn X. Maybe he was mistaken?” “Well I can’t exactly go back to him and accuse him of lying…” – obviously not a good route… but with a manager who passes on any and all complaints/criticisms from outside the team without checking for accuracy or her own knowledge of the situation, sadly a common occurence.)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      1. When you agree with your manager’s feedback: “You’re right. I’ll be more careful about it” (or whatever makes sense for the particular feedback). Don’t say you’ll think about it if you already know it’s right. (And if your problem is that you need time to not have a knee-jerk defensive reaction, you need to work on not having that reaction when you know the other person is right. And also on understanding that giving you feedback is part of your boss’s job, and also on realizing that you make yourself look worse — weak, lacking confidence, lacking self insight, difficult — when you get defensive even when the other person is right.)

      2. When the manager has factually inaccurate information: Basically what you said above, but with a tone that’s genuinely confused and concerned and not defensive.

      1. KellyK

        If the criticism is subjective, another non-defensive way to approach it might be “Hm…All I can think is that Coworker and I must have different definitions of inappropriate X. Can we make sure I’m clear on your definition and the official policy so I’m clear on what I can wear from now on?” Or does that sound like you think the coworker is full of it?

        People have different opinions on what constitutes “low-cut” or “too tight” or “shoes that are too casual.”

        1. fposte

          I think the request for clarification is great, and you could make that same response without the co-worker mention: “Hmm, I wouldn’t have thought it was too casual–can we make sure I know your standards and the official policy so I’m clear on what I can wear from now on?”

          1. KellyK

            I like your phrasing better than mine. No implication that the coworker doesn’t know what they’re talking about!

        2. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yes, I think that’s perfect. The idea is that you want to totally drain emotion from it and truly approach it the same way that you would any other business thing that came to your attention that needed to be fixed (that wasn’t about you).

        3. Jamie

          Yes – when it’s subjective that’s really good advice.

          There are cases of mistaken identity, though. When I was new at a job once I was spoken to about not wearing Birkenstocks to work. I’ve never even owned a pair – and I work in manufacturing and would never wear open toed shoes to work. Not only is it against the safety code, but I value my toes and would like to keep them.

          It turns out the complainant had me confused with another woman who worked in the office. So in cases like that, where it’s not subjective at all and you either did or didn’t, the correct response is confusion. At least that was my response.

  3. ChristineH

    Definitely required reading – thanks for reposting Alison.

    I’ve had managers actually be hesitant to provide me constructive feedback because, no matter how much I try to stay calm, I tend to get very easily upset, even if I realize that the criticism is warranted. I have no excuses for that except that it’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life and genuinely do want to work on. I have to say that this blog has been very helpful in seeing interpersonal relationships in the workplace through the eyes of an experienced hiring manager as well as all of your readers and commenters. I am hopeful!

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      When you say you tend to get upset, is it that you get defensive or really just upset (emotional/teary/etc.)? If it’s the latter, one thing that might help would be to just say, “Excuse this, I tend to get emotional easily, but I hear what you’re saying and I will absolutely work on it.”

      1. ChristineH

        It’s been awhile since I’ve had an issue, but I’d say more towards getting emotional, mainly out of embarrassment. But I’ve also had instances where I did get defensive; for example, at one job, I was told not to document something a certain way, and I responded that I’d seen it written that way, thus I thought it was okay.

        I know I have much to work on…and fast because I am planning on really ramping up my job search this month.

        1. fposte

          Christine, one thing that might help you is a prop–I’m thinking particularly of a glass of water or cup of coffee. Taking a sip would allow you to pause and physically reset a little after your initial “Okay, I hear you” kind of response (maybe something like “Okay, I’m sorry, let me take a moment to absorb this”), same as a glass of water can help you in an interview.

          And you know, it’s not all over in the one exchange. If you fall into the defensive trap, you can come to your manager later and apologize for the response–matter-of-factly, not grovelingly–and say that you agree that X is an error and you’ll take care to prevent it. Your response doesn’t have to be ideal right out of the box.

          1. anon o

            Also, sometimes maybe it’s not actually criticism, just feedback. I managed someone who was so defensive, any kind of feedback I gave her she would get upset, I’d say (to use your example) to not document something a certain way and she’d act like I’d accused her of something and explain in the most boring and long-winded way possible that she didn’t know and that’s why she was documenting it the wrong way. I would always think, yeah I know you didn’t know…that’s why I’m telling you to do it another way! But I do admit there were times when I didn’t give her feedback because I didn’t have time/patience that day for a huge discussion about it and go into a long explanation of why it’s not a big problem that she was doing it this way but please do it another way for this reason and it’s totally OK, no problem, just please do it this way, etc etc. Honestly, a lot of the time it wasn’t even constructive criticism, just a case of I learned the hard way not to do this so please don’t do it for this reason. Keep in mind that sometimes the face value of what your manager is saying is correct – it’s just advice or instruction.

            1. Lily

              I knew someone who behaved like this and I am clueless about how the long discussion can be avoided. Any hints, PLEASE? However, she said she hadn’t been accused of making a mistake in years, so I guess it was a mistake to suggest that she might have made a mistake or could do something differently.

        2. Emotional too

          I have a huge issue with my emotions and can’t hide shock and tend to look annoyed really easily or get teary easily (even when intellectually its not a teary subject!).

          I always carry a tube of sweets in my pocket for my throat so I can say “excuse me” turn and clear my throat and put a sweet in (Fruit pastilles works well for me).

          Then I can move my jaw etc. to work over anger/fear/upsetness etc without looking the emotion. Its also less ‘smacky’ than gum so it doesn’t look as rude IMO.

          (I carry them for my throat genuinely as well and just stumbled on this as a coping technique after that!)

    2. Jamie

      If it’s tears, I’m not proud to say I’ve cried at work. Not in response to criticism – when criticized I actually have no problem admitting an issue if I think it’s valid. If I’m not sure it’s valid, or feel it’s wrong I morph into professional stoic mode immediately and have to deliberately talk myself back into lightening up.

      But the few times I’ve cried it was because I was furious and as much as I HATE this about myself, I cry when angry. Not regular irritated angry, if that were the case I’d weep all day, but the kind of angry where all you really want to do is quit on the spot with a spectacular speech of outrage, or see if you can break tempered glass with your stapler. Something in my head goes into self-preservation mode so I don’t quit or throw staplers and the frustration comes out in tears.

      A couple of things that really do work:

      1. Excuse yourself for a second, if possible. Not to go cry, but to go to the ladies room for a second and wash your hands – the activity of getting up and cold water on hands helps regain composure. The point isn’t to cry while in there – if you’re anything like me they’ll be able to tell for hours afterward.

      2. Hand lotion/sanitizer – cleaning wipes. If I feel it coming I start to apply lotion like it’s my job – something distracting by a physical action and the fragrance can bypass the urge to cry. No idea why it works, but hand sanitizers or cleansers with rubbing alcohol work best for me.

      3. In someone else’s office and you can’t leave and no lotion? Pinch the bridge of your nose – hard – like you’re rubbing where your glasses rest – and count. Usually by the time I make it to 20 the sting of upcoming tears has subsided.

      I know it sounds crazy – it’s like cures for the hiccups – nothing works for everyone – but people who are prone to crying when upset, angry, whatever need little coping mechanisms so we can wait until the ride home and not have to deal with the aftermath at work.

      And I could swear when I was a kid hiccups were spelled hiccoughs – but pronounced the same? When did that change? I hate when I disagree with spell check.

      1. Andrea

        Angry + frustrated = tears for me.

        I do math in my head, though, whenever I feel tears coming on. Specifically, the Fibonacci Sequence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_number
        Feel free to laugh. I learned about this on an episode of Mathnet when I was a kid, and for some reason, it stuck with me. I’m not good at doing math in my head (or, really, any other way), so I usually have to concentrate pretty quickly on this little task. If you were not a fan of 1980s PBS educational television for kids, then simply put, you start with 1 and then go 1 and 1 is 2, 2 and 1 is 3, etc. Or you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLhQfcZ-BWk (that’s the finale and recap). (Oh my god, I didn’t realize I could watch Mathnet on YouTube! There goes my day.)

        1. Tater B.

          Was that not the greatest show ever?!?!?! I still sing the song about nine. “Nine, nine, nine/that crazy number nine/times any number you can find/it all comes back to nine!”

        2. ChristineH

          This show was for kids??? I just read that wikipedia article and all it did was remind me why I hated algebra and why I’m glad I never took advanced math courses. lol.

          1. Andrea

            Yes, Square One TV was for kids (Mathnet was a part on the show, the last 5-10 minutes every day). I think it was preteens. It was AWESOME. I can’t understand why it isn’t still shown. I remember a lot of the songs and things about geometry and stuff, too. I wanted to buy the DVDs last year for a friend’s kid, but they aren’t available.

            The Wikipedia article is confusing. It’s just
            1+1=2
            2+1=3
            3+2=5
            5+3=8
            and so on and so on. It’s explained more clearly in the Mathnet clip. You might not want to look at it, though, since I just spent the past half hour doing little else.

            Sorry for the off topic, but seriously, doing that in my head does stop me from crying because I am not great at math. I only get several steps into it before I have to concentrate hard in order to add in my head. I don’t think I have cried from getting constructive criticism at work before, but I have come close in other work (and personal) situations, and this has helped me a lot, so maybe it will help someone else. If nothing else, doing something else instead of crying helps you get it together, and then you can reflect on it later.

            1. fposte

              Right, wasn’t Mathnet technically just the Dragnet parody? I *loved* that. (George Frankly turned up as a comic fringe candidate on a late West Wing season, and I was so pleased!)

        3. NDR

          My husband looks at me like I’m crazy/making it up whenever I talk about Mathnet / Square One and sing the “Nine” song. Thank you!

      2. ChristineH

        Jamie – Yup, I definitely cry when I’m angry too. Probably more out of being angry or frustrated with myself as opposed to being angry with the other person. I just cry easily in general, so I may have to try some of those coping mechanisms. Thank you!

        Tater B – I’ve wondered about my body language too. No one has ever pointed it out, but I sometimes wonder if my body language contradicts what I’m saying out loud.

        1. Kelly O

          I have a “tell” and it’s not something I’ve been able to hide. But when I get angry or upset, my whole neck flushes bright red. As I live in Houston and have a fat girl face, wearing turtlenecks year round is not exactly a great choice.

          I’m also one of those angry criers. It’s something I work on constantly, and I’m much better than I was when I was younger, but it’s not easy, that’s for sure.

          I find myself just taking really deep breaths, or forcing myself to stop talking or take a pause before I do speak.

          1. Anon

            My collar bone region gets bright red when my blood pressure is up – whether it’s anger, frustration, nerves. When it’s really bad, it’ll travel to my neck. I’ve learned to wear high-neck shirts if I have a stressful meeting.

            I’m also cry when I’m angry. I think it was the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office that said that young girls in America are very strongly socialized that crying is the only socially acceptable outlet for anger or frustration (especially for white middle class girls). For example, if someone cuts in line before your turn at the swings when you’re five, yelling and confronting them aren’t as acceptable (or done) as crying and hoping they relent. This grows into a HUGE disservice as women in the workplace. (Okay, probably not the best example, but not having a five-year-old girl, I can’t think of something where she’d be allowed/expected to cry, while a boy would be more challenging.)

            1. Jamie

              That makes sense. As a little girl if my brother (much older) did something and I yelled or hit I was told immediately that I wasn’t being nice and I had to stop it and say I was sorry.

              But if I cried, most of the time he had to give me my way and he was the one who had to apologize.

              At one point in my life tears had a tremendous amount of power – at work they remove all power. Yelling could never the channel with Batman on it changed to Josie and the Pussycats. Crying got that channel changed every. single. time. Very interesting.

              I have never looked at it as that blatant a form of conditioning. I know our parents meant well, but this was a real disservice when it comes to preparing us for the workplace.

            2. Jamie

              I had a much too long reply to this that got deleted – but I wanted to say I think this is brilliant.

              I never thought of it as conditioning before – but for some of us that may be a root cause. As a little girl tears were very powerful. Yelling and hitting got me in trouble, but crying (even over the same reasons) got me my way and made other people apologizing to me.

              You learn early that if you want that channel changed from Batman to Josie and the Pussycats RIGHT NOW tears will get that channel changed every single time. Yelling or more overt anger just gets you a time out in another room and Batman plays on.

              I’m going to have to pick up that book – I hope it’s available as an ebook – something to read tonight.

            3. Andrea

              I guess I should thank my dad, then. As a hypercritical person who really knew how to make words hurt, it just made him angrier if I cried when he was yelling. I learned not to, and I learned how to get mad. That may have served me very well, actually, and I have always been quick to speak up (for myself and especially on behalf of someone else) and able to present logical arguments quickly. Silver lining! I’m not some crazed, angry person though; in fact, I’m quite externally calm, I like quiet, and I hate yelling or shouting in all forms. But I do not shy away from confrontation when it is necessary, and I keep my cool exterior when I’m mad.

              Getting angry is still my go-to response to destructive criticism–and I am (unfortunately) also quite good at making words hurt when it’s necessary–though that’s not at all how I react to constructive feedback or suggestions for improvement. I can absolutely see how learning not to cry has helped me and how the kind of conditioning that many other girls got may hurt them.

      3. Vicki

        You and me both.
        Especially if furious, and/or the criticism is a shock. (Where shock is along the lines of “where the Heck did that come from? Is this the same manager I worked with for the past 8 months? Has he been replaced by a pod person??”)

      4. Town Crier

        Those are all excellent. I have another one: Look up, and at a bright light (but not, y’know, directly at the sun or something). I don’t remember where I read this, but it actually works most of the time.

        Another one that works for me, if I can find a way to do it surreptitiously, is to do puzzles, preferably math-related ones, for a few minutes. Currently I have a Sudoku app on my phone, and by the time I’ve filled in just a couple of spots I’ve shifted out of emotional mode.

        1. Jamie

          This is a good tip. A couple of rounds of word warp or angry birds and it kind of reboots my brain. It only takes a minute and I don’t know the science behind it, but it’s like if you have a papercut and it hurts like heck and then you stub your toe and you forget about the papercut. It’s something about the change in focus.

    3. Tater B.

      My problem is my body language. Even as I’m accepting the feedback with my words, my actions completely change (i.e., frowning, crossed arms, defensive stance, etc.) I didn’t even realize I did this until someone mentioned it outside of a work setting. Now that I’m aware, I am trying to nip this in the bud. It’s one of the reasons why I prefer feedback in e-mail form, but I realize I cannot always avoid face-to-face meetings.

      1. Jamie

        I hear you – I have the same physical reactions, and I’ve had to consciously work to unclench when I feel it happening. Like a check list in my head: 1. Arms relaxed, neutral facial expression, and I order my eyes to maintain contact and not to roll.

        The best compliment I ever got was when someone, after a very tense meeting, asked how I was able to be so relaxed and unphased. Internally, I was a mess – but I realized then I had finally learned to fake it.

        The one thing I can’t control is blushing, though. Only when I’m embarrassed, so it’s not often, but it starts at my chest and rises as I turn a dramatic shade of red and my ears absolutely burn.

        People ask me if I’m okay – worrying that something medical is happening…it’s not, it’s just an involuntary response to embarrassment or shame. I really appreciate it when people are kind enough to pretend they don’t notice. Also – I stay kind of splotchy for hours after.

        If anyone knows how to control that I would be all ears!

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          OMG, I have a huge blushing problem. I blush at the slightest hint of embarrassment — which then makes me more embarrassed, until I turn bright red. I hate it.

          1. Jamie

            I think this is a redhead thing.

            We hired another redhead last year and she’s in the same boat – so when I see her start to turn I jump in to rescue her when I can!

            1. Kelly O

              Thank god. Not just me. (I just posted in the previous comment thread about that same thing. It happens when I get embarrassed too.)

              1. Jamie

                What is it about knowing that the horrible thing that happens to you, and you hate, happens to other people makes you feel better?

                It made me feel better, too, which is kind of awful when you think about it: Hey I hate this – but it happens to Alison and Kelly too so…yay!

                Weird part of the human condition.

                1. Kelly O

                  I’ve no idea. And I hate that it happens to other people, especially people I like.

                  But it does make me feel better to know I’m not the only one who dreads those stressful conversations because I *know* the other person is going to know it’s bothering me more than my words might try to let on.

          2. Michelle

            Oh, me too! And if someone points out that I’m “all red”, it just makes things worse. I think it all comes down to not wanting to be in the spotlight, regardless of the reason.

            I’m a brunette though….but I have very fair skin.

        2. NewReader

          Jamie, I used to have uncontrollable blushing. It is better now- I think in part because I take some vitamin E everyday. Vitamin E helps blood vessels to stay open and blood to keep flowing normally. Make sure the E is from a natural source and not a synthetic. I take extra if I know I am going to have a stressful day.
          That and watch your breathing pattern. Practice calming breathing patterns when you are calm. It will be easier to use the breathing exercises when you get hit with upset.
          I am not a red head- but I have a few in my family. Am not sure how I escaped that gene- but I did.
          Heck, I used to blush when someone said my name. That was years ago- but I still remember….

  4. AnotherAlison

    When do we get the post on how managers should give constructive criticism?

    I say that because my biggest beef with criticism is hearing it for the first time at my annual review. It’s okay if it’s minor, like you’re going to ding me from a 5 to a 4 because I’m not as proactive as you want me to be in working with others, but if it’s going to be a ding from 5 to 2, and you’ve never said one word all year, looks like I’m not the only one with a problem being proactive!

    1. Anon2

      LOL, I was writing up a pet peeve of mine and was getting excited all over again. Suffice to say, my pet peeve is having a manager come up to you with some issue, in front of coworkers and while you’re on the phone with a client, and when you express confusion, keeps pushing and pushing until you get sharp with them. Then criticize you for getting sharp with them in front of others, even though once you had 30 seconds to actually process what they said, you knew they were right and it wasn’t even a work process issue. THEY chose the venue, then didn’t like the response because of the venue. O.o

  5. Anon2

    I admit that I don’t always take criticism well, right at that moment. I am someone who needs a moment to process through things, because my kneejerk reaction is relatively defensive. I’ve definitely improved and I even get high marks on my reviews for taking criticism, lol. Mostly, this is because I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong or taking direction when I’m not experienced at something and make a mistake. But, if I disagree initially, then I don’t always take that well and need a minute to process it before being asked to go “rah rah, thanks so very much, rah rah, go team!” Even though I don’t usually get upset during this process, I have a fairly expressive face so they know when I’m confused or irritated or not happy with what they’re saying. I’ve learned to just say I need time to process the information, then I can also do whatever research I made need to do to flesh out why they are right (or wrong).

  6. cf

    I had a boss tell me that I used “too many big words that made people feel stupid.”

    I was genuinely (is there a bigger, more obscure word?) confused because I had no idea what he was talking about. I have the normal vocabulary of the average person who has graduated from college. I asked him to give me an example and he either wouldn’t or couldn’t. I asked which people and he gestured and said vaguely, “People!”

    A co-worker and I later surmised that my boss was talking about himself. Which was a very bad thing, because if you make your boss feel stupid, even unintentionally, you are not long for the organization.

    1. Jamie

      I’ve gotten this – but not in a serious way – just as a heads up.

      Brand new first job ever I sent out an email asking for contemporaneous reporting rather than aggregated at the end of the week.

      In another email that week I somehow felt Kafkaesque would be the best way to describe something – although for the life of me I can’t remember what I could possibly have been thinking.

      Yeah. My boss jokingly told me I made him look up one more word I was fired. With a gentle reminder that the majority of people receiving my email and reading the posted memos didn’t have extensive education/English wasn’t their first language or both.

      I learned to get more user friendly with my emails after that. Although I was kind of proud when a co-worker referred to me as Queen Vocabula whenever he wanted help jazzing up an email to corporate.

      1. cf

        See, if you sent me an email saying you felt Kafkaesque, I would want to become your best friend because I would think it was so cool that you thought that way and knew who Kafka was and what Kafkaesque meant. I would reply with a cockroach joke and be happy that I had found My People.

    2. Ellie H.

      I have had people mention this to me, too. It wasn’t critical, more complimentary/impressed, but I was still a little embarrassed and self-conscious. I admit I have a really good vocabulary (I am fantastic at crossword puzzles) but I’m not like trying to show off or anything . . . I just like precision of language.

      I feel like there are inevitably going to be many work situations where “Kafkaesque” IS the best descriptor!

      1. Jamie

        That’s what I thought!

        Seriously though, there are those who deliberately amp up the $50 words deliberately…but others and you seem to be a lot like me in this way – it’s the way we think and we need to remember to translate it into simpler wording depending on the situation.

        When I was a kid my mom used to say it was akin to how my Gramma thought in German but had to translate it to English when she spoke. She said I needed to sometimes translate the stuff in my head before I say it, otherwise I could lose people/make them feel bad. There is a huge difference in someone reaching for the obscure word to look cool and someone reaching for it because it has the exact shade of meaning they need.

        FWIW I never dumbed down my vocab for my kids when I was raising them and all three of them have ridiculous vocabularies even though school wasn’t always easy.

        Words are fun – I love learning new ones…it’s like having a collection of really useful objects you get to keep in your head.

        1. Anon2

          “it’s the way we think and we need to remember to translate it into simpler wording depending on the situation. ”

          This is a tough one. Unless you’re absolutely sure you know your audience, then simplifying your wording can be condescending. Unless someone says something, I just don’t. My vocabulary is healthy, but not amazing so if someone wants to think I’m pretentious, then they’re welcome to their opinion. If someone spends any time with me, they’ll see that it’s just the way I talk. Still, my coworkers like to joke that I’m their dictionary and thesaurus and just speak up if I use a word they’re unfamiliar with.

        2. Tax Nerd

          I like to use the occasional big word if it’s more precise, but I have learned to tone it down because many of my clients don’t speak English as a first language.

          (I might say “You will receive some tax breaks for your children” rather than “You can claim a personal exemption and possible a Child Tax Credit for each child” or somesuch.)

          Then again, my first-year legal writing class really taught me to be brief. (The writing for obfuscation is the advanced class, I presume.)

        3. Kelly O

          So you would be cool with me telling my not quite two year old the stove is verboten?

          Because I’m pretty sure she’s the only kid in daycare who knows verboten and danke schein.

      2. Rana

        Yes, I know what you mean. They’re just… my words, you know? To me they’re ordinary and unremarkable (especially since most of my family and friends have similarly extensive vocabularies), so I’m always taken somewhat aback to learn that other people think I’m being snotty or putting on airs when I “show off” my “big vocabulary.”

        And then I don’t really know what to do with that information, either.

        1. Jamie

          That’s beautifully phrased – not knowing what to do with the information – that’s a problem.

          It’s like someone telling me my eyes should be less brown – it’s resentment of an inherent trait – what do you do with that?

          To Anon2 I agree wholeheartedly about the condescension. I didn’t change for my kids when they were toddlers, why should I do it for anyone else. And I think my mom was wrong – she should have told those who had issues to suck it up and buy a dictionary…but it’s the whole parents are fallible thing.

          There are times in certain work environments where it’s necessary. In cases where a significant segment of the employees are functionally literate it just makes more sense to translate into simpler terms for messages you want to get to the masses. The goal is to impart information, so you want to make sure you do what you can to achieve that end.

          For emails where everyone has access to a million websites with word definitions, then no filtering required, imo.

        2. Kelly O

          Not to be too much of a joiner, but I am totally with you and Jamie. There are just some words that are part of who I am, and it’s confusing when someone else doesn’t understand, or looks at me like I have three heads.

          I don’t say it to be “snobby” or “think I’m better than you” or whatever you might want to think. It’s just how I think, and how I talk. I try to not do too much weird stuff in some situations because I know the audience, but if I feel comfortable and start talking, it’s just going to come out.

          It can push you really far back in your shell when you get made fun of or teased a little too mercilessly for using a phrasing that just happens.

        3. Rana

          I can, and do, adjust my language in written communications, where appropriate, but in speech? On the fly? In casual conversation?

          Oh, my, that’s difficult. I either end up pausing unnaturally as I second-guess myself and try to figure out a “simpler” way of saying something, or I end up saying everything about three different ways just to make sure I’m understood. It’s frustrating!

        4. 22dncr

          And this also applies to being bilingual. I grew up speaking Spanglish – it is almost impossible for me to pronounce words like Taco, Enchilada, Mole, etc. any other way. For me to say them the Gringo way I have to REALLY consentrate and it almost feels dirty coming off my tongue! I find Americans not from the Boarder or used to multi-cultural areas can get very intimidated by this.

  7. Omne

    Sometimes the managers are defensive too. I remember a couple of years ago I interviewed for a management position with two other higher managers. I scheduled a meeting with each for feedback after I found out that I wasn’t selected.

    I went in to the first meeting and the poor manager looked so defensive, arms crossed, leaning back into the corner of his chair with an apprehensive look on his face. I started out by saying I thought they made a great choice in hiring X ( I actually did think it) and that they would do a great job. Arms came uncrossed, he leaned forward and I got some terrific feedback. I think he expected me to argue about why I didn’t get it. I have a suspicion one of the other candidates had already done so.

  8. BCW

    This is a great post. I’ve had a manager or 2 tell me I don’t take criticism well in the past (although most managers haven’t had that concern), when in my opinion I was just saying my side of the story. Its like I wasn’t defending, just more like explaining why I see the situation differently. I guess it may come off as me being defensive and not taking it well though mainly because of my body language. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t really like the person. But if my current manager who I like said something, I feel I’d explain in the same manner. But I can see how things can be taken very differently.

    1. Bonnie

      I think it is in our nature to explain something if someone doesn’t see it the way we do. As a manager, you should get used to that behavior. I have coached newer managers in the past to learn to wait for it. Explain the issue, let the employee explain their actions and then go on to give the training portion of the feedback as to why it has to be done this way and how to check for these issues in the future so that it doesn’t happen again. There are some people who, if they don’t get a chance to explain their reasoning, can’t really hear and process the correction. They sit there thinking, if you just know why I did it you would understand. Very often that explanation changes nothing, the policy is the policy but you frequently have to let the employee have their say before you can coach them on how to avoid the situation in the future. I am not trying to be critical of your saying you need want to explain because I think it is common. As a manager I have learned to adapt to that in my feedback process, which I hope helps the employee be heard and at the same times clears the way for the learning.

    2. Jamie

      My biggest issue in the defensiveness game is when people start defending themselves before I’m even finished with my sentence. And more often than not if they had let me complete my thought they’d see that they aren’t addressing the same topic as I.

      I learned this early as I had a boss who was great in many ways, but did have a tendency to meander around topics so you really had no idea where you would end up when he started talking. He could start out with examples which felt critical but it was really a loooong wind up to a point where he was praising you. Out of self defense I learned a couple of things:

      1. Let people finish speaking before responding – even if you fear celebrating another birthday waiting for them to get to the point.

      2. Be professional and kind, but get to the point if there is an unpleasant conversation to be had. Nothing is gained by increasing someone’s anxiety wondering what you want to talk about and how bad is it?

    3. fposte

      Bonnie’s answer is particularly insightful, I think; I really liked her view of explanation, though of course not all managers will leave room for that. It’s particularly tough, as you note, in a situation where you already aren’t getting along that well with your manager. I’d recommend avoiding terms like “my side” that make it sound adversarial, and to start with something more collegial like “Okay, I’m sorry, I can see that that might have been a problem” that puts you two on the same team. If you can make it about how you came to your decision–“This is how I approached the priorities”–and check back with an indication you’ve heard that this isn’t working–“and you’re saying you see the priorities differently”–it’s easier to get your point across and give the manager a way to respond to your reasoning (“I’d prefer the deadline be the priority”) without him/herself feeling defensive.

      And you don’t want to be the employee who makes it hard for somebody to give you feedback, because then things like bad performance reviews, first-to-go in layoffs, and firings really can come out of the blue.

    4. Laura L

      This was always my instinct too, but, in my first real job I realized that it just sounded defensive and caused problems for me.

      I like to know why things are done the way they are, so I’ll often say, oh, do we do it that way because of x? And see what the response is. (Asking why something is the way it is can come off as defensive, too).

      I’ve learned to accept that, as Bonnie says, often the policy is just the policy. There’s no reason for it or there’s a reason that I’m not allowed to know and I have to just roll with it.

      1. Jamie

        “(Asking why something is the way it is can come off as defensive, too).”

        Not if it’s done the way you described – out of curiosity.

        I always want to give a reason for a procedure, or a change, because I think the more people understand about global whys the more sense things make. And the more you understand the more accurate your assessments and suggestions for improvements.

        I genuinely believe my reasoning is sound for my procedures, so selfishly I think if one understands my logic they will do it properly because the way I wrote it makes sense. Then I don’t worry as much about someone cutting corners when I’m not looking. By the same token, I can’t think of everything so if you see a more efficient way to accomplish X without sacrificing Y I am all ears. If it’s better than my way I will revise a procedure and buy you lunch in a hot minute.

        That said, I can’t tell you how many times people just want to be told what to do and are pretty blatant about having no interest in the reasoning behind why. Just tell them where to click, what to type, and when to stop. I hate that.

        When someone asks me why about anything I want to give them a hug – because I’m so grateful for the interest.

        1. Laura L

          “because I think the more people understand about global whys the more sense things make.”

          Yes! This is exactly why I like knowing why. However, in one of my first two jobs out of college, I found that saying “why?” or “why do we do it that way?” was often interpreted as criticism of the process or as pushback against the task.

          It might have been my tone of voice, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to change the wording as well.

  9. Joey

    I sort of disagree that all of those reactions are bad. I think a lot of managers are way too sensitive to this stuff. They feel like employees like to hear criticism. Let me tell you as hard as it is to give it it’s just as hard for employees to take it. For example I don’t necessarily mind if someone looks pissed. Especially if they’re pissed at themselves. As long as they’re pissed for the right reasons. And I expect sulking every now and then. As long as its not extreme and they use the criticism wisely big whoop if they don’t take criticism with a smile.

    1. Anon2

      Thank you!

      I understand that we all need to modify behavior in society so we can all (mostly) get along. But sometimes I feel like people expect you to respons appropriately 100% of the time and that just isn’t going to happen. People should identify if they have problems and work on them, but expecting people to accept any and all incoming criticism with grace is rather naive.

    2. Lily

      I wouldn’t expect anyone to take criticism with a smile. What I measure is how long the employee needs to correct whatever. I don’t mind how pissed off they get if they can change what they do soon. I also don’t care how cooperatively they thank me for my comments if they take a month to fix the mistake.

  10. NewReader

    My upper limit seems to be the number 3.
    I hear three criticisms in a row- the tears are working their way to the surface.
    In situations like that it is no one thing- it is the barrage, without a chance to speak. And usually, it is because I was following instructions that someone had given me that were wrong. And I have been doing those things for a while- so I assumed I had gotten it right.

    By then, I have one frustration on top of another and I don’t know how to dig out of it. In these cases, I can be one of those people who say “okay” then I stop talking.
    It is funny how things change over time. Growing up- I was always told “just say ‘okay’ and then stop talking. No one wants to hear excuses.”

  11. M-C

    My “favorite” kind of criticism is the one where the office bully makes up an imaginary bloop. I’m enraged, indeed, not at the manager but how can I explain it when bully-boy is his favorite, his long-lost son, his alter ego? Denying it happened at all just makes me look defensive. I fumbled that one, that’s for sure, and manager never forgot and trotted it out in every subsequent conversation. Sigh. So glad I’m out of there..

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