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On the Job

How to take the sting out of criticism

To do our jobs better, we need honest feedback from the people we work with and for. If you feel put down and react angrily when you hear something negative, it’s a big turn-off. People don’t necessarily stop being critical, but they may stop telling you what they think.

No one likes to be criticized. It’s uncomfortable and it can hurt. In fact, the language we use when we talk about the experience actually suggests physical pain. We describe verbal reprimands as being “slapped,” “beat up,” “pounced on,” “ambushed,” “bashed,” even  “stabbed.”

But if we try to shut out the critics and listen only to the people who agree with us, it may seem like we don’t really care about getting better at our jobs. People may perceive us as egotistical–or that our self-esteem is so shaky we get “blown away” when anyone suggests we do something differently.

Criticism vs feedback

We tend to use the words criticism and feedback interchangeably, but perhaps we shouldn’t. Clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, sees the two very differently. He makes these distinctions:

Criticism tends to be judgmental and accusatory. It can involve labeling, lecturing, moralizing or even ridiculing.

Feedback focuses on providing concrete information to help motivate a recipient to change his or her behavior.

Criticism involves making negative assumptions about the other person’s motives.

Feedback reacts not to motivation or intention but to the actual result of the behavior.

Criticism, especially when it’s given poorly, includes advice, orders and ultimatums, making the person receiving it feel defensive and angry.

Feedback, by contrast, looks at how the person should change but tries to prompt a discussion about the benefits of change.

How to respond

Whatever you call it, feedback or criticism, the urge to strike back is probably the worst barrier to one’s ability to learn from what was said. And the key is to try not to take it personally. Granted, this is easier said than done, particularly if a reprimand was heavy-handed, insensitive or seemed unfair.

Here are suggestions for how to respond:

Be careful what you say. Without meaning to, it’s easy to sound defensive when you offer an explanation or rationnale for what you have done.

Resist the urge to respond. Listen to what’s being said. Take a few deep breaths and get your thoughts together before you answer. You might ask for some time to think it over. Say you’ll get back to the person and make sure that you do.

Assess the criticism. Don’t go on the defensive–or assume that your critic is right. All criticism is not equally valuable. To get the most from it, ask yourself:

–Where did it come from? Is it based on genuine concern and support for my well-being and growth?

–What were the circumstances? Was it given from a place of jealousy, envy or politics?

–Is there a pattern? Have I heard these points before?

To give good feedback

Here’s what management consultant Robert Cooper, author of The Other 90%, advises leaders to do when they give feedback:

Set the context. You might say, for example: “Here’s why I believe these comments matter.”

Choose a good time and place. Deliver your feedback in a private setting.

Be clear, specific and caring. Emphasize the person’s strengths and “degree of fit” between his or her talents and roles.

Identify weaknesses. Work together to overcome them. Set next steps for follow-through.

Give positive feedback when it’s deserved. People can take criticism a lot better if you’re not too stingy with praise.

Style, culture & upbringing count, too

Some of us grew up in families where there was a lot of yelling. Others shrink from this behavior. Some people give feedback diplomatically. Others are ”in your face.” Some people are shaken by even a gentle correction. Others take it on the chin and learn from it.

How we give and receive feedback has to do with our personality, upbringing, workplace culture and age.

Old-style management tends to be less hands-on and more curt. Many older workers have learned to be cautious. In fact, they can be so measured in their feedback, the recipients may not even get the message.

Younger workers tend to send and receive a stream of information, and they want to communicate often with their managers. But they’re used to being praised and they like it.

Cultural differences count, too. A University of Michigan study found that Japanese athletes are more likely to be motivated by ”failure feedback” and American athletes by ”success feedback.” Japanese athletes and commentators were twice as likely as Americans to criticize their performance. ”In Japanese culture, self-esteem is important, but more important is improving yourself,” said Professor Shinobu Kitayama, coauthor of the study.

Whatever our background, everybody needs positive feedback—because we all have, to some extent, what Dr. Leon Seltzer calls an ”inner Charlie Brown” who feels insecure.

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