Tackling Criticism – A How-To Guide

Nobody likes being told they’re doing things the wrong way but whether you’re giving or receiving criticism, remaining calm, being honest and focusing on solutions will reflect the positive and professional PA that you are, says Gill Hasson

No matter how brilliant and hardworking a PA you are, now and again you’re going to receive some criticism. Some may see criticism as someone else’s problem – they don’t like or approve of something you have or haven’t done. On the other hand, criticism can be viewed as a type of feedback; another person’s genuine experience and perspective or you, and what you have or haven’t done. Of course, it may not be accurate and they may be harsh or exaggerating but, whether it’s justified or not, ensure you handle criticism one way – positively.

Receiving criticism
Next time someone criticises you:

  • Listen and clarify – if you’re not sure what they are referring to, ask them to be clear and explain fully.
  • Be honest – instead of immediately defending yourself or going on the attack, stop for a second and ask yourself whether there could be any truth in the accusation.
  • Ask how they want the problem solved – if they haven’t said so already, ask how you can put things right. And bear in mind you may or may not agree with their solution.
  • Respond – say whatever you think is valid and add whether you agree with their solution or suggest your own. This might sound something like this: “I’m sorry, I should have been more assertive/understanding/speedy. I can see this is going to be a problem for you. What I can do now to help, however, is…”
  • If you honestly feel their criticism is unfair and invalid, say so – calmly say you understand that’s their perspective but explain why their criticism is unfair or wrong. Then suggest the next steps.

Giving constructive criticism
What if the situation is reversed – what if a service provider fails to meet your standards or your boss asks for your honest opinion on their presentation? How can you avoid potentially upsetting or offending the other person?

The answer is to have a different mindset about what criticism is – rather than thinking in terms of what someone’s done wrong, think in terms of what they can do right and consider changes they could make to improve:

First, decide what exactly the problem is and what your solution is. Something like this: “Your presentation went on and on. You kept repeating yourself. You’re going to need to do some work before you give that talk again” isn’t constructive criticism. Instead, you could describe what specifically can be changed in order to improve: “I thought you made some good points but they could be shorter. You went over time by about 10 minutes. Perhaps time it to five minutes per point to create a presentation that’s more balanced.”

Next, consider your use of the “and” and “but” – in the following example, “but” is a minimising word that detracts from the positive sentence before it: “I love the design, layout and video on the new website. But the sidebar content needs to be less cluttered; you need to narrow it down to the key things. Also the font size should be increased.”

Instead, start with something positive then add the word “and” to make your suggestion for improvement – it infers there’s a helpful suggestion to come: “I love the design, layout and video on the new website, and if the sidebar content was narrowed down to the key points and the font size increased, it would be great!”