Even the most experienced public speakers falter when it comes to responding to criticism.
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You’re standing in front of a group, presenting your ideas. Their faces might as well be stone. One by one, they begin to ask questions, challenging your logic and throwing off your presentation flow.
As their onslaught continues, your worst fear comes true: that shaky voice you worked so hard to tame starts warbling, those shaky hands you spent months stilling begin to tremble. Beads of sweat begin to form on your temple.
How could this be happening?
You walked into this presentation with unshakable confidence. You couldn’t be more prepared.
But somehow, the criticism from the audience is beginning to chip away at your armor. It’s causing you to doubt yourself. And, like clockwork, all those dreaded anxious behaviors of yours are starting to resurface.
No one enjoys being in this kind of situation.
So how do we keep our cool when being challenged on the spot? In the face of adversity, can we prevent our hands from trembling, our voice from shaking, and our mind from racing?
Yes. It’s hard. But sure we can.
Want to know the dirty secret of handling criticism? The critic will be more impressed by how you react than by how you respond.
Intrigued? Let this lesson be your go-to resource any time someone is criticizing you, putting you on the spot, or trying to get a rise out of you.
Let’s get into it.
Someone just challenged you in front of the whole group. What do you do?
Let’s break things down into two parts (1) how to calm your nerves and (2) how to respond with poise.
Done properly, this approach will turn criticism into yet another opportunity to impress the audience and demonstrate your credibility.
Part 1: Calming Your Nerves
In order to calm yourself down, let’s begin by understanding what’s going on in that brain of yours.
Without training, your mind will treat criticism as a threat to your survival. That sounds extreme, but studies show that your physiological response to being publicly challenged mirrors that of a life-threatening situation. This actually makes sense because, a few millennia ago, when we were still living in caves, being publicly challenged could very well mean that you would have to fight for your life.
Fortunately, these days, the stakes aren’t nearly as high. But your mind’s cave-man software is still very outdated. So regardless, it’ll start doing things that get you ready for a fight. These preparations are great if you need to throw a spear, or run for your life, but not so great if you need to instead face an audience and speak compellingly.
So how do we combat this?
The first step is to breathe. Seems obvious, but it is hard to understate how important this is. When your mind senses danger, it automatically revs up your heartbeat and shortens your breath. This fight-or-flight response is what causes the shaking and trembling.
By taking a few deep, slow breaths, you signal to your body that there is no need to flee or panic. It sends a soothing message to your mind.
It sends more oxygen to your brain, allowing you to think with more clarity. That’s important if you want to speak intelligibly.
Deep breaths also help relax your diaphragm and vocal cords, which have likely tensed up (a common cause of a squeaky, shallow voice) in your panic.
We take dozens of breaths per minute, so no one is going to think you’re weird. You can space it out over a few sound bites so that there’s not one, awkwardly long pause.
Take a deep breath, speak a little bit, and then take another deep breath. Do that a few times and your body should start to return to a calmer state.
Smiling shows that you’re not afraid. It implies that you’re confident in your ability to respond intelligently. This will predispose your audience to taking your side, whatever you say.
But smiling isn’t just about influencing the audience.
Studies show that your mind often mimics your behavior, rather than the reverse. In other words, if you act relaxed, you’ll start to feel relaxed. This magic is at play with the breathing tip above, and it applies to smiling too. To feel relaxed, it helps to start by appearing relaxed.
Smiling releases a slew of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. This will relax your body, lower your heart rate and decrease your blood pressure. Above all, it sends the signal that you are safe and ready to speak confidently.
03. Use Power Posture
Stand up extra tall, with your shoulders back, and use open body posture (no crossed arms). Similar to smiling, this power posture signals to the audience that we are in no way threatened by the criticism. It boosts our confidence in the authority of what we are about to say.
Likewise, this posture is telling our brain that we’re strong and in control. It says: “I won’t be broken” and “I know what to do next”.
Part 2: Respond with Poise
Most criticism does not come from a place of malice, so it’s important to not take the criticism personally. Separate your self-worth and value of what you’re saying from the knee-jerk response of anger that criticism can evoke.
Here’s what to do:
01. Show Appreciation
You can appreciate your critic by saying “Thank you for asking that” or “That’s an interesting question”. This is a great way to start your response because it neutralizes the potential tension and shows you intend to respond with civility and grace.
Think about it this way: they listened to what you were saying and took the time to come up with their own thoughts on the matter. That’s better than them ignoring you or staring off into space. They are demonstrating that they want to engage with you on this topic.
And who knows, maybe their criticism will give you the opportunity to see the topic from a brand new fresh perspective. It might even be the catalyst for further investigation!
02. Be Humble
This is another great way to diffuse the tension in the room. Acknowledge the possibility that the criticism is valid. You’re not perfect, statistics aren’t perfect, the people who conducted the research you’re citing weren’t perfect, and every argument has its flaws.
By showing the audience that you are able to see things from the critic’s perspective, you are demonstrating, in a very powerful way, your open mindedness. It lends further credibility to the strength and comprehensive nature of your argument.
03. Demonstrate Your Authority
Now that you’ve diffused the tension in the room and showed that you are a reasonable person, it’s time to take a stand. It’s time to defend your position.
If you’re speaking publicly about something, it’s because you have something to say. If you’re doing it right, you’ve done lots of preparation for this. You know your topic and you have a strong sense of purpose for delivering your message.
All of that provides you with a very strong foundation from which you can provide a response.
Make it clear to the critic and the audience that you’ve done your homework. This may be your idea you’re presenting, but it is supported by reliable data and a large body of peer-reviewed research.
Your position may not be infallible, but it sure as heck warrants consideration. And you should feel no shame or embarrassment about standing by it.
04. Challenge Them
Now, this step isn’t for every type of criticism. But, if you feel like they are mistaken, misinformed, or just downright bonkers, you can say as much.
If they are challenging you, you can challenge them back.
Let’s look at a few ways to phrase this:
“I shared your concern until I saw the data from this most recent study. Did you have a chance to review that yet? It really puts this matter to rest.”
“If you recall from the last meeting, Fred, we ran over last quarter’s financials and concluded the numbers were correct.”
You can also put them on the spot by asking them to clarify and elaborate on their criticism. If there is any substance to their comments, they’ll be able to elaborate. If not, well then you just tamed the beast.
Also, it is possible that their line of inquiry is out of the scope of your topic. If that’s the case, just say so: “That’s a great question, though it’s a bit out of the scope of what we’re discussing here. Let’s make a note to follow up on that after this meeting.”
Now how’s that for a criticism response strategy?
It really comes down to two simple steps:
Part one is to keep your cool. Breathe, smile, and adopt a power posture to prove you’re in control.
Part two is to be polite and firm. Say thank you, acknowledge their views, and then explain with confidence why you said what you said.
And if needed, challenge them.
Remember, you don’t have control over what people will say, think, or behave. But you do have control over what you say, think, and behave.
This is your opportunity to take the reins and prove to people why you’re worth listening to.
So now that I've shared our thoughts, I want to hear about the last time you faced public criticism. What did they say? How did you respond? What worked and what didn’t?
Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments below.
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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners.
Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.
Happy Explearning ⚡
Before you go, check out these other related lessons on dealing with criticism: