How to Listen to Nasty Criticism: 4 Useful Questions for every Day

Do you like it when people speak ill of you?

We don’t, absolutely.

However, we have to admit that such criticism is often the most useful one. It’s like a proper treatment, which should be nasty. So you won’t get sick.

Why is unpleasant criticism useful, what prevents us from hearing it, and how to communicate with nasty people – let’s talk about it.

Everything that we talk about in this article is not just a copy-paste of some very clever book. It’s not even a copy-paste of a few very clever books. This is the summary of lessons we’ve learned through our management experience, from communicating with our audience and readers, clients, partners and each other.

This conversation on how to listen to nasty criticism will come in several parts:

Why do you need to listen to nasty people

What prevents you from listening

What to do: how to listen and hear nasty people

Let’s go! So:

Why do you need to listen to nasty people?

There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, these people might be smart. And if you work in IT, it’s most likely so. So why don’t listen to someone smart?

Secondly, smart people can notice something you don’t see. Maybe due to the limited experience, blurred vision or excessive self-confidence.

Thirdly, when you do not listen to them, they’ll still want to share how bad you are with someone else. You practically lose control over the situation. Someone tells you unpleasant things for a reason. Most likely, something you did annoyed them. And they want justice. If you don’t hear their reasons, other people will – like colleagues, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Fourthly, communicating with unpleasant people is a great way to train your communication skills. In her book “Up!” Inna Kuznetsova told a story about one her very nasty boss. And she even thought of quitting, when suddenly realized something.

The farther up you climb, the fewer bosses are there to choose from. There’s no guarantee your next boss or customer will be a wonderful and open-hearted person. That’s why this current nasty boss is a great lesson on how to work with an unpleasant boss, – she thought, and after a while Inna Kuznetsova became the first Russian VP of IBM.

Fifthly, if you manage to hear this person and establish a contact, believe me, this will seriously boost your self-assurance. Personal experience.

However, we may experience difficulties in hearing a person and accepting the criticism the right way. But that’s our difficulties, it’s not about that person. Our difficulties are:

a wrong attitude towards the discussion in the first place;

emotions that interfere with listening.

The right attitude: an opportunity to improve

The right attitude can be explained in a single phrase: “Perceive problems and criticism as an opportunity for improvement.”

You can expand this idea. If a person tells you unpleasant things, be sure they found something to be unpleasant. Moreover, at least several other people saw the same but did not speak up. And this person did. That’s good. That’s good for you.

Also, this person wants to get the message across to you. There’s a purpose in speaking to you, but they do it this way. It’s not because they are bad or somehow mutated. Obviously, they’re doing it the best they can. This way works best for them. And the person is not bad probably, and that’s also part of the attitude.

Anyway, besides attitude, there are emotions. Why are they interesting? They involve the right hemisphere of the brain, shifting the focus from the left hemisphere (logic). Which definitely doesn’t help in improving the constructiveness. Pleasant emotions are good by themselves, without any logical hemispheres. And as for unpleasant ones, better get rid of them.

Three sources of unpleasant emotions

What brings out unpleasant emotions? Usually, it’s words and verbal stimuli that are knowingly or (more often) unknowingly used by an opponent. The most common techniques are:

The attack on a person’s worldview. Once an American psychologist Robert Redfield formulated the concept of a person’s worldview, which consists of several levels

“I” as an individual

Self-identification system

Values system

Social attitudes system


Fantasies and illusions

We won’t bore you with the explanation of all these levels, but the point is that every person has their own worldview. A person sees him/herself as a good specialist, a good dad or mom, an honest person, a patriot, etc. And you have probably observed attacks on these views more than once:

“How could a specialist of your level allow such crap?!”

“Why should I explain to a manager with your experience something so basic?!”

“A man over 30 in public transport is a loser.”

“Decent people do not behave like this!”

And even “Are you even a man, or what?” is the same technique. And “Dare you [do smth]?” – is an attack on a person’s worldview, if they consider themselves brave.

Such attacks on a person’s worldview are called heavy manipulations by some psychologists, and they (manipulations, not psychologists) are usually the ones that cause the most powerful negative emotions.

Appeal to guilt. This technique is often used in communications. At least, it can be heard in training sessions all the time. And we all heard it at some point in our childhood: “Noone is eating lunch until we have a confession who broke the vase,” – says the nursery teacher, attacking the unfortunate trouble-maker’s guilt with all her charisma.

A grown-up trouble-maker applies the adopted technique on the colleagues:

“Are you really going to abandon our project now, when your help is especially needed?”

“Why didn’t you run the tests when we needed it so much, and you were asked to do it three times?”

“I’m working my ass off here, and you don’t give a damn!”

“I put so much faith in you, and you…”

Appeal to fear. Fear is the oldest emotion that has helped humans survive as a biological species. It’s ability to make people act was long known. And now it’s broadly used:

“Colleagues, do I need to escalate this problem to make you move?”

“You do realize if you don’t do this for us, next time it’s…”

“If it happens again…”

Ok, two news on negative emotions – a good one and a bad one. The bad one is that you can’t learn to fight negative emotions by reading posts. This skill comes with practice only. The good news is that this skill eventually comes.

Understanding what causes these emotions is the first step to learning how to overcome them. Here’s a small homework for you: Try to remember the last time you encountered negative emotions in a conversation. Analyze what words caused them. Are they within three main reasons? Try to catch yourself having emotions in the coming week. What awakens the negative?

What to do?

When I have an unpleasant conversation with a person, I try to answer four questions:

What’s going on?

How is it expressed?

Why is it bad?

What would I have ideally?

Here’s an example: A couple of years ago we signed a training contract with one company. At the last minute, thanks to our brilliant business organization, we found out that we forgot to include the travel expenses and coaches accommodation in the agreement. I wrote an email to the customer that, well, we forgot to include tickets and hotel expenses and if there was a way to include them then.

In response, I received a letter full of unpleasant words, many of which were written in CAPITAL LETTERS supported by numerous exclamation marks. “What do you think you are doing?”, “We are a reputable company!”, “Is this your way of doing business?” – everything was there in the email.

Naturally, I flared up. And, as far as I remember, I even turned to bad words. But then I remembered that the customer was a good and polite guy. That, obviously, something in my email had triggered such a reaction. I tried to understand, what was going on, in what way was it expressed, why was it bad, and what could we do about it.

As it turned out, the company had numerous rounds of training budgets approval. And our customer already finished all this hassle, forced out the budget. And right when he breathed out a sigh of relief, I invited him into all these circles of hell once again. Obviously, he was not very pleased with my email.

As a result, we settled to deliver the training as agreed initially, but in the future include the travel and accommodation expenses. We’ve worked with this company many times after that incident, and I hope, we will proceed.

What’s going on? Here you try to hear the facts. They can be quite surprising. And you may say: “Thanks for telling me. It’s new for me and I’ll take care of it.”

I remember, at the very beginning of the Happy PM project I wrote emails to my subscribers in a very ‘Herbalife’ style. It seemed like fun to me because I was tired of the dry corporate text after eight years in a big corporation. Until one of the subscribers wrote to me “Alexander, it’s terrible…”

I’m very grateful to this man for opening my eyes. Thanks to him, I changed the style of my emails.

Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you need to listen to everyone and do what they say. What you do is totally your decision. But listening to everyone, is very useful for making this decision.

How is it expressed? Sometimes people speak vaguely: “Your testers are irresponsible!” What does it mean? Do they leave their wives and little children? Or do they forget to run tests?

At this point, I try to understand what exactly we are talking about. To proceed to the next question:

Why is it bad? The fact that testers forgot to run the tests is not good or bad. It’s a fact.

Why is it so bad for the other person that now he is angry at me? Maybe he hasn’t fulfilled his obligations to the customer or superiors? Did he have a feeling that he lost control over the situation? Why is it his soft spot and what is this soft spot exactly?

I need to clear it all up to get to the next step:

What should we have ideally? And here you can also ask one more question: “So, what would you want?” or “What do you think is right?”

A few years ago I got a complaint from a reader about the design of my website There was a standard WordPress design, all blue and white. I really liked it; I was very proud of myself that I could install a real WordPress. After the previous ‘Herbalife’ version, this one was a qualitative leap.

And suddenly I get the following: “Alexander, it’s very interesting to read you, but your website design is a disaster.” I seethed with anger, but then honestly answered: “I just have no idea how to change the design. I’d be very grateful if you told or showed me how.” And I got an answer: “Let me set up a new design for you myself.” This is how I met Slava Pankratov. And honestly, that was probably the most successful communication in my whole career. Apart from meeting my wife, of course.

Conclusion: think, notice, practice

Let’s sum it up. You need to listen to unpleasant people. They can be smart, they can notice what you don’t. If you don’t listen to them, they’ll go and speak behind your back. Plus you can boost your communication skills with another type of individuals. And it will certainly come in handy.

If you get negative emotions in a conversation, most likely it comes from the attack on your worldview or from the appeal to your guilt or fear.

Having deciphered the origin of the emotion, ignore it to get to the heart of the four questions:

What’s happening?

How is it expressed?

Why is it bad?

What would you have ideally?

To consolidate this skill, try to keep these four questions in mind during the next unpleasant conversation. And after the conversation, analyze it – what happened, where emotions kicked in, and what you were able to agree on.


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