3 tips for handling public criticism (from someone who wishes she'd done it better)

In my leadership book of fair play, one of the basic rules is to praise in public and criticize in private. I firmly believe that making people look — and feel — stupid (regardless how egregious, or not, their offense may be) in front of others serves no one well.

So imagine my shock and surprise to have a project partner level some hard-hitting criticism my way during a conference call with the project sponsor. We had co-authored a blog piece, passing it back and forth countless times as we edited and refined the content. Finally satisfied with our writing, we had scheduled the call. Just after exchanging pleasantries, my writing partner declares that I incorrectly entered a reference note, used the wrong dash mark, made a grammatical error in the second paragraph and then went on to explain in detail the error of my ways.

For me, it was one of those moments when the world slows down (like when you know you're going to rear-end the vehicle in front of you) and images, thoughts and feelings collide in your heart and mind. Unfortunately, my anger - in its incredible hulk-like intensity - prevailed as these words tumbled out of my mouth in a most sarcastic tone, "Well, blah-blah name, thanks so much for correcting me...NOW!"

One of those epic awkward silent moments ensued. I can only imagine what the third-party on the call must have been thinking.

I've mentally replayed that moment several times. And my reaction is always the same: chagrin and regret that I didn't take the high road and simply, and kindly, say "thank you." I let my feelings of having been betrayed and unfairly one-upped win. A real personal leadership no-no.

Sadly the world is full of people ready to steam roll over you to increase their standing, so changing that is beyond your control. But, what you do control is your reaction when you're unexpectedly and publicly criticized.

My three learnings and going-forward tips for handling public criticism

1) Be gracious in the moment. Responding as I did only resulted in two people — rather than one — rolling around in the mud. My grandma always reminded us that you get more flies with honey than vinegar. That old bromide will never be untrue. The vinegar pourers might get some momentary acclaim and/or notoriety, but take the high road. The spotlight may not shine as brightly there but you know you've done the right thing.

2) Don't completely ignore the criticism, just take it off-line. Follow-up after the call, meeting or encounter to ask your criticizer for more details and feedback on how to do better in the future. Bring your honey, of course!

3) Be bold and make the ask. Your request for future criticism (constructive or otherwise) to be delivered privately might be ignored, but the important thing is that you stuck up for yourself.

Bringing civility back starts with me...and you...remembering and committing to taking the high road.

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