The Top 5 Ways to Respond to Destructive Criticism

A sign with awesome pointing to the right, and less awesome pointing left.
A sign with awesome pointing to the right, and less awesome pointing left.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

But feedback comes in different forms. Some of it can be put to use. Some of it can’t. How do you recognise the useful from the not so useful, and respond with grace?

What is constructive feedback?

Constructive feedback or criticism is meant to be offered in a helpful, non-threatening way. It’s intended to help you grow, to help you learn and is thought to be true and valid. For example:

“I thought you prepared really well for that presentation, but it would have been even better if you’d cut down by a few slides.”

Notice here that the person isn’t saying “You did a good/bad presentation” or “You are boring”. It’s neither a bland statement of true or false, nor is it an attack on you as a whole person.

If you can see that yes, you had a few extra slides in, then you can see the feedback is intended to assist and it’s specific to this thing you did — namely, creating a presentation. That’s feedback you can acknowledge and use the next time you make a presentation.

What is destructive feedback?

Quite simply, destructive feedback is either not valid or true, or it is a true criticism but it’s been told to you or presented in a really unhelpful way. So to take the above example:

“You just can’t help yourself when you present — you always have to add extra details in that aren’t necessary.”

Or, more directly:

“You bored us with that presentation.”

Why this is destructive

1. It uses unreasonable qualifiers

I’ve selected these examples specifically, because the first one demonstrates the use of an unhelpful qualifier — “always”. As soon as you hear “you always…” you can be almost certain it’s not going to be followed by anything helpful.

It’s also often quite hard to respond to something like that, that’s said with confidence, because chances are you’ll be surprised or feel a little attacked by the comment, making it hard to remember the times when you probably didn’t do things the way they’ve said you did.

2. It attacks you as a person, not your actions

Nobody wants to be attacked, point blank, as a person. Someone saying “You’re boring,” as a response to a presentation you did, is extraordinarily unfair and unhelpful. How can you possibly action that response?

The Top 5 Ways to Respond

If you can deem the feedback you’ve been given to be truly destructive, there are five ways you can respond…

1. Disagree with the criticism

We’re always told that we should accept criticism because it’s constructive to do so. Sometimes this blurs the lines — yes, we should, but only if the criticism is constructive. If it really isn’t, then why be passive and agree to its truth?

It is assertive to calmly disagree with someone’s unhelpful criticism.

For instance, the above example and possible response might be:

“You just can’t help yourself when you present — you always have to add extra details in that aren’t necessary.”

“I did add in a few extra details this time, but I certainly don’t do this every time. On this occasion, I felt they were helpful to include.”

Notice this isn’t “making an excuse”. It’s calmly stating the logic behind your actions, to ensure that the destructive feedback isn’t accepted as a matter of course. After all, a passive response to this piece of destructive criticism may make it easier for someone to keep on delivering that kind of feedback.

Sometimes, an assertive response not only helps you to clarify what’s going on, but might also help the person giving the critique to realise they will have to be a bit more constructive in future.

2. Say “thanks, but no thank you”

If someone offers up a destructive piece of criticism designed to try and make you feel inferior, it’s reasonable to thank them, but then make it clear you’re all good and don’t really require further input.

This is especially helpful if you’re dealing with someone who is routinely in your life, making comments that aren’t helpful (e.g. a family member, or your boss). If you have a belligerent presence in your life, setting some boundaries will help in the long run.

An example:

“You really suck at presenting. In future, I should just do it for you.”

Okay, an extreme thing for someone to say, but these kinds of criticisms that are used to put you down but also elevate the speaker are really hard to respond to in the moment. After all, maybe you didn’t give a perfect presentation, but if you accept this kind of statement, will you get the chance to try again?

Probably not.

In which case, it’s thanks, but no thanks:

“It’s interesting to hear your feedback, and now that I know how you feel, I’ll be working to do better next time.”

Or, even more assertively:

“It’s good to know how you feel. But I think there were some things that went well, and others not so well. I’ll work on the not-so-well things for the next time I present.”

Essentially, you want to make it clear that you can see there are areas that may require improvement, but it’s still rejecting the idea that 1. It’s just you as a whole person, and 2. You should just bow to their criticism and let them take over.

3. Use it to learn about them

If someone has given a really obviously destructive piece of criticism, it’s worth questioning where this has come from, and why.

Maybe you have been doing something that’s really bothering that person, but they just aren’t sure how to constructively tell you about it (so they’ve settled for a crappy approach). Or maybe there’s something else going on with them (in which case, nothing to do with you). Or perhaps it’s something that they do themselves, and they’re levelling the criticism at you to distract from their own issues…

There might be any number of reasons.

It can be worth questioning where the criticism is coming from. After all, they’ve shown you a side that isn’t exactly helpful or kind to you.

Use the opportunity to take away some lessons from dealings with that person. What do you think might be triggering them? Is it even about you? You might ask about this if you’re comfortable, but if they just seem to be the person who takes things out on you when things aren’t going well for them, it might be worth deciding not to listen any further.

If you can’t ask what’s up, don’t speculate too wildly, or assume the absolute worst.

Take the lessons you can from it, and move on.

4. Defuse the situation

This is particularly for anyone presenting what feels like very aggressive criticism, designed to escalate or challenge you to rise to it.

The aim here is to defuse a difficult situation, which can be done by only agreeing with an accurate part of what they are saying (if there is one). For example:

“You haven’t done any of the chores I asked you to do. You’re so completely useless and unreliable.”

The response being something like:

“Yes, I haven’t done the chores. I will make time tonight to do them, and next time let’s agree a good time for both of us.”

Remaining calm, and refusing to be upset by the criticism, will help defuse the situation. Ignore the parts that are an unhelpful attack and only agree to the little truth embedded within (if there is one).

If there’s literally nothing true in what they have said, it’s better to simply disagree (see point 1!).

5. Ask questions, then follow up

Another approach that might suit a work or other longer term situation is to question and follow up on the criticism that’s been given.

This does two things: first, it may help defuse any aggression, because you are responding rationally and calmly to feedback given, assuming positive intent even if the criticism is destructive. Second, if the person has spoken without really thinking about how you might use the criticism, it puts the onus on them to clarify or explain, rather than on you to somehow use the criticism that hasn’t been thought through/doesn’t seem constructive.

You haven’t actually acknowledged it as true, but you are ‘acting as if’ to dig into the motivations and intent behind it, and to try and get something from it, if it’s possible (it isn’t always, but asking questions may help!).

If our example is “Your presentations are so boring,” you might ask clarifying questions like:

  • “Are you saying that I should have fewer slides?”
  • “Would you recommend that I get extra training?”
  • “What is specifically wrong with how I presented?”
  • or even: “How would you act on this feedback?” for anything that feels overtly destructive.

Once again, you are under no obligation whatsoever to try and make destructive criticism into something helpful. But you may wish to try if this is someone you’re likely to keep getting feedback from.

If you can determine a few actual actionable points through questioning the criticism, consider following up — show that you take feedback seriously, and want to action things that can legitimately be actioned.

Obviously, if you decide the criticism is just unnecessary and not actionable, there’s no need to follow up. But this can be a good way to show that you have a good will towards feedback, and if you’re likely to get more criticism or feedback from this same individual, they may take a bit more time to think through what they’re about to feedback on, next time.

Christina Carè is an Australian writer and podcaster based in London. She writes on mental health, sexuality, relationships, creativity and the arts. She is working on her first full length fiction novel. Connect with her via Twitter.

Written by

Trying to live better. Writing on Mental Health, Relationships, and Living Ethically. Editor/Podcaster.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store