A Conversation with a Critic

Leaders don’t have to search for critics. They attract them.

I’m often in the position to hear negative feedback about leaders that I coach. Everyone judges a leader’s performance. Even those who think you’re great have passed judgement.

People who don’t like you are more helpful than those who think you’re great, when it’s time to improve. Bill Gates put it this way, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”


Critic: “You never listen”

Leader: “I’m so glad you said something. Thank you. I have to say it stings a little. I want to be a good listener. When you see me not listening, what do you see me doing?”

Critic: “You always interrupt.”

Leader: “Could you remind me of a time when you saw me interrupting?”

Critic: “The last time we met in the hall, you cut me off when I was explaining a production issue.”

Leader: “Yes, I remember that. I’m sorry. If I listened better, what would you see me doing?”

Critic: “You wouldn’t be looking down the hall. You’d look at people.”

Leader: “Thanks. Anything else I might do to listen better?”

(Ask for at least three suggestions.)

Leader: “I’m so thankful for your suggestions. I need some time to think this over. I’ll touch base with you next week.”

12 elements of the conversation:

  1. Express gratitude.
  2. Practice vulnerability.
  3. Declare positive intentions.
  4. Go with negatives.
  5. Invite clarification.
  6. Define behaviors. Clarify broad statements like, “You never listen.” 
  7. Seek examples.
  8. Apologize.
  9. Turn toward positives. “If I listened better, what would you see me doing?”
  10. Identify three or four positive behaviors. Solve problems with behaviors.
  11. Don’t make rash commitments.
  12. End with gratitude.

2 reminders:

  1. Ignore people who don’t know you.
  2. Critics often overstate. Don’t answer overstatements.

How might leaders get the most from critics?

When is it good to ignore critics?