Have you ever…

  • been upset by criticism you received?
  • been enraged by negative feedback on something you did?
  • got into an argument online when someone didn’t agree with you?

Whether you’ve published a book, posted a blog, had an appraisal at work, or had an argument on social media, getting negative feedback is a fact of life. Most of the time, we respond to unpleasant comments with anger, hurt, or frustration, but there is another option. One that can help us to deal with negative comments. This method comes from the philosophy of Stoicism, an Ancient Greek way of life that promoted emotional intelligence and reason rather than rash reactions and losing control. So, here’s the Stoic way to deal with criticism…

Step 1: Stop

When you receive negative feedback, it’s tempting to respond instantly, be it a verbal rebuttal, furious typing, or your fists. Don’t. As humans, our first reaction is a primary, instinctive one. It comes from our caveman days, from our biological hard-wiring, but it’s often not a very helpful response. In fact, this emotional response is often one we regret later.

Step 2: Take a breath

Instead of reacting, take a moment to pause. Slowly breathe in and out a few times—in for four, out for four. This breathing technique can calm down our biological “fight or flight” response, the thing that kicks in when we feel attacked. It helps us calm down physically, and it also gives us a moment to process the feedback. You may want a few minutes on your own before you reply, or a few days. If the feedback is in person, tell the other party that you need time to think about what they’ve said.

Step 3: Rationalise

Now, think through what the person said and the context of the situation. You may find it useful to check your understanding by repeating the comment back to the person as a question, like “It sounds like you’re saying x, is that right?” Did you correctly interpret their feedback? Was it really negative or did you just perceive it that way? If you found it upsetting or hurtful, why did you? Did it trigger a part of you that felt attacked in the past? Did it touch a deep wound? 

Step 4: Wear their shoes

Now, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Where are they coming from? Why do they have that impression of you? Are they coming from a genuine place or purposely trying to antagonise you? As humans, our opinions are based on our subjective experiences of the world, so bear in mind that not everyone can agree all of the time. 

Step 5: Be objective

Once you’ve rationalised why you might be upset by the feedback, you can stick your fork in more solid, objective ground. Be honest with yourself: Is the feedback accurate? Is it fair and reasonable? Would you agree with the comment if the roles were reversed? Would you agree with the feedback if the situation was happening to someone else?

Step 6: Learn

Whether the person was being genuine or not, fair or not, you can still learn something from the situation. This may be a lesson about how you responded, how other people respond to you, how to better connect with people, or something else. Can you learn something about yourself or about other people? Can you learn something about how your actions or communication comes across?

Step 7: Respond

Now that you’ve fully reasoned through the person’s comment, you may wish to respond. Do so calmly and clearly. You may wish to thank the person for their feedback, because regardless of whether or not you agree with them, the experience is helping you become a better person. Alternatively, you may decide not to respond but use the experience to improve your future interactions, particularly in the case of online arguments.

Step 8: Implement

Once the interaction has ended, it’s time to act on the feedback. Use it as a learning experience to become a better person in the future. This may mean being more aware of your habits and how you come across to other people. It may mean adjusting your behaviour or improving your communication style. It may be embracing future feedback, rather than fearing it.

Impressive that a bunch of old Greek dudes can still be relevant in the era of Facebook arguments and Twitter rants, right? Stay tuned for more philosophising…

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