The hardest lessons leaders must learn center around criticism — how to receive it gracefully and give it constructively.

The last year has shown us that even some individuals who have reached the highest levels of leadership struggle with these concepts.

As you look down the ladder in terms of leadership rank, it does not become any easier to find individuals in leadership positions who enjoy criticism. In fact, of all the trainings I’ve attended over the years and all of the mentors I’ve worked with, not one has remarked about how much they enjoy criticism.

Even when it is constructive, it’s not fun. Criticism tends to make people self-conscious, defensive and even sometimes hostile.

Unfortunately, as people take on more responsibility, they must develop thicker and thicker skin to be able to hear criticism without letting it diminish their self-worth. 

For some, this means they don’t take the criticism seriously. They let it bounce right off of them, but also don’t hear it as a chance to grow and become better.

You can become a master of hearing and processing criticism, though.

Experts offer a lot of advice on how to handle criticism well. Here’s a quick look at what they suggest:

• Stay calm. If you can breathe deeply and hear the person out, you may get something out of it — even if your hands are sweaty and your heart is racing.

• Listen. This only works if you’re able to stay calm. Otherwise, you’re thinking about how they person is wrong and how upset you are. Don’t respond or think about a witty retort. Just listen.

• Take time to think about the criticism. This doesn’t mean absorb it all and take it all to heart. But, take some time to analyze the criticism and decide for yourself if they have a point.

• Consider running the criticism by someone you trust. This cannot just be a friend who will tell you you’re perfect. You can only trust a task like this to someone who will be kind and honest.

• Learn and grow. If you find some truth in the criticism, take the opportunity to grow.

As a leader, sometimes you also have to provide criticism. While it sounds easier than hearing it about yourself, that is not always the case. It’s tough to feel like you are hurting somebody’s feelings. Some people are also just flat uncomfortable with what they perceive as confrontation.

Here are some tips on providing criticism:

• Schedule a meeting and tell the individual what it’s about. Nobody likes surprises. If you ask a person to think about whatever you’d like to provide constructive feedback about, they may come up with the same ideas you have.

• Be specific. Don’t beat around the bush, this just tends to confuse people. Give specific examples and explain the good and bad. In these scenarios, also focus on the actions of a person rather than the person themselves.

• Include the positive. If it’s relevant in the feedback you’re providing, be sure to include what somebody is doing well. Take time to tell somebody what they are doing well.  

• Provide concrete ideas for how the person can improve. It is so much more helpful and productive if you can give achievable steps and goals. It also empowers the person.

Society hasn’t always had the best public examples of how to accept and provide criticism, but there are ways to give and take without making a situation worse.

Kristen Czaban has worked with The Sheridan Press since June 2008, moving to Wyoming after graduating from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She covered a wide range of beats before becoming editor in 2012 and publisher in 2017.

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