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BREATHING SPACE

How to cope with criticism

Smarting from a stinging comment from a boss, work colleague or friend? One of these coping strategies will make you feel whole again, says Brigid Moss

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By Brigid Moss on

If you've got something to say, there’s always someone who’ll disagree. Even as we feel the glow from any positive comments we receive, human nature means one single negative, mean or small-minded comment will stick in our mind. So, how can we go about getting a bit more Teflon and tough? Jennifer Dulski, author of new book Purposeful, has developed a series of strategies for when you feel under attack. 

Dulski has spent her career helping people do what they believe in, to start movements and lobby for change, previously as president of Change.org and now head of groups and community at Facebook. “Seeing criticism as the gift that it is, or the feedback that it is, even when it’s difficult, can be really helpful approach,” she says. After all, it’s really a badge of your success: “The more successful you become, the more visible you become, the more prone to criticism you are.” And that’s true if you’re starting a movement, campaigning for change or if you simply want to make a controversial point at work or state an opinion on social media. These are Dulski’s key criticism strategies: 

1 Treat CRITICISM as feedback

Dulski calls this "leveraging the naysayer", neutralising criticism’s sting by using it. She tells the story of Mary Lou Jepsen, founder of an organisation called One Laptop Per Child, who was trying to build a solar-powered, sunlight-readable, inexpensive laptop. “Most people thought it was impossible. And instead of getting discouraged by that, she took it head-on,” says Dulski. Jepsen met with one of the biggest tech companies in Asia, who gave her 23 reasons why her plan wouldn’t work. Not only did she take their criticism, she used it, and that of other tech companies, to fix her product. “The rest is history – they debugged her product for her and now that product is in the hands of millions of children.”

2 Understand the why of it 

This is what Dulski calls "the bear hug": “My belief is that people don’t come out of the womb as haters and trolls. And so there is a deeper way to work with this.” Instead of fighting your critics, you try to understand the root cause. While she was working at Change.org, for example, a computer scientist in Spain began spamming the site, trying to prove it was possible to add fake signatures to its petitions. Instead of taking a technical approach in blocking his IP address, one of Dulski’s team flew out to Spain to meet him. It turned out the protestor was spamming only because he was worried a particular petition he supported was being undermined by fake signatures. And once he learnt face to face that fake signatures weren’t possible, he stopped. 

Human nature means one single negative, mean or small-minded comment will stick in our mind. So how can we go about getting a bit more Teflon and tough?

3 Build your allies

When you have supporters for your cause or engaged followers or a tight team, you may not need to defend yourself on your own. “When criticism comes towards you, you have all of these people to help you combat that,” says Dulski. Support can bolster you up, too. Merna Forster led the Canadian campaign to get women on banknotes and received some harsh criticism, a lot of it gratuitous. What she did to support herself was go back to her petition and read people’s reasons why they signed it in the first place. “It reminded her the amount of support she had was vastly greater than the amount of negativity.”

4 Don’t engage

The best way if things get personal. “There are times when not engaging at all is the right strategy,” says Dulski. She tells a story about McKenna Pope, who, at age 13, noticed her little brother was put off baking by the fact that his toy, Easy-Bake Oven, came only in pink and purple. Pope campaigned for the manufacturers, Hasbro, to make it in non-stereotypical colours. Her mantra became "haters gonna hate". And in her TED Talk: Want To Be An Activist? Start With Your Toys, she made the whole audience repeat that phrase along with her.   

5 Take the big perspective

When Dulski’s daughter was seven, she had an accident at school that left her in an induced coma for more than a week. Most of us have had moments like this in life, where suddenly there is nothing else that matters. Now, when Dulski is having a rough moment at work or facing criticism, she says remembering that time can put things right back into perspective. You realise, she says, “this thing I’m upset about is so small in the grand scheme of all the things that could be happening right now". 

6 Hit it with humour

Make a joke of the criticism with friends and it’ll lose its power. Print it out and throw darts at it. Read it out like the Mean Tweets segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Humour lightens the load. “At the end of the day, I do try to remember that there is some reason people behave this way – and, generally, it comes from a sense of deep insecurity and struggle in their lives.”

Purposeful: Are You A Manager Or A Movement Starter? by Jennifer Dulski (Virgin, £14.99)

@brigid_moss

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