Self protection – how to deal with criticism at work

We are surrounded by social threats – people giving us negative feedback at work…the new scariest phrase at work I think is ‘can I give you some feedback?’, or people getting over-emotional and potentially a bit aggressive when they’re under pressure, or even just you sending out a piece of work that you’re pleased with hoping against hope that other people will like it as much as you do and that you won’t hear the phrase ‘can I give you some feedback?’ when it lands with the boss. So how can you deal best with social threats like these, stay professional and most importantly, keep yourself safe and happy?

Today’s blog will focus on 4 areas that will help you protect yourself and get the best from the situation when you feel attacked by criticism, negative feedback or a particularly aggressive or full-on person at work.

  1. Learn to respond and not react
  2. Empathise
  3. Hear the feedback but also
  4. Keep your distance

OK, first up…

Learn how to respond to negative feedback and not react

When we perceive a threat, whatever kind of threat it is, it gets processed in our brains in a similar way. So whether we’re literally being attacked with a rock by an angry monkey or being publicly criticised by Sheila from Accounts, this threat is perceived by our brains as broadly the same thing. And it can lead to what’s called emotional hijacking or amygdala hijacking, where our emotions overwhelm us and send us out of control because all the blood is running away from our brains (where we can be rational and reasonable) and into our muscles, readying us to escape the dire monkey rock situation.

This first tip then is to get more familiar with how you respond personally to threat situations – in particular, certain types of feedback or criticism or people. If you know that emotional hijack can happen in particular trigger situations and you’re likely to feel emotions that are a bit overwhelming, know that this will pass as it’s just a bunch of misguided neurotransmitters not quite understanding that you’re not, in fact, in mortal danger from angry primates, but that you just didn’t fill in your expenses claim correctly again, and Sheila from Accounts is “hangry”.
Once you learn to work with your body and brain in trigger situations, you can start to slow things down to the point where you’ll feel more in control. And if I’ve said it once I’ve said it 1000 times, building a meditative practice really helps because you can more easily anchor yourself with your breath and get back physical control in emotional moments.


This is really helped by being better equipped to choose your response and not react is to empathise with the person coming at you. Sheila from Accounts is “hangry” right – she’s hungry and is also on a bit of a downer maybe because she got a flat tyre on her bike cycling into work and now she’s got to sort that in the rain at lunchtime, oh and also her youngest daughter did pretty poorly in her SATs exams and Sheila feels guilty for it because she didn’t spend enough time revising with her. And and and.

Look, I’ve obviously made Sheila up, but when it comes down to it, we’re all human, and we’re all trying to make our way through life the best we can. And sometimes we screw up and react in ways that we regret and sometimes it just comes out all wrong. So if possible, give Sheila the benefit of the doubt and find out what’s going on in her world, once you’ve apologised for the expenses claim happening.

Of course sometimes, you have people a bit more extreme than Sheila coming at you repeatedly and more aggressively and intimidatingly and while it may well be that their behaviour is driven from their stuff and not because of you, it is 100% not ok and they need to know that. Again, if you have a way of staying calm in the situation as I’ve mentioned (and I have a couple more approaches to share later too), it will help you deliver the message to them that what they are doing is not acceptable and you will not stand for it. Calmly, respectfully, politely and therefore with devastating maturity and professionalism.

It takes skill and it takes practice and so in repeat situations with people who are effectively displaying adult bullying behaviours, know your boundaries, draw them and then practice how you’re going to defend them in the heat of the moment with a calm and mature demeanour.

Hear the feedback but also…

Next point, because although feedback or the offer of it often sounds scary and the answer to the question inside our heads when someone asks if it’s ok for them to give us some feedback is ‘no, go away, my day was going well and you’re probably going to ruin it now, stop immediately’, actually, they may be offering us something that actually is useful, if we had the presence of mind to be able to hear it. So whatever the feedback is, whoeveris offering it, my advice is to take it, thank them for it, clarify it if you need to, don’t try and defend yourself.  And then later, when you’ve had a chance to digest it, see if there’s anything of value that you can take away and work on. Because there often is.

As long as you keep your boundaries in mind and take on board only those things that you’re responsible for, rather than things that aren’t and that are the other person’s stuff.

Keep your distance

OK, so last and probably most usefully of all, here’s a technique that an exceptional coach and therapist friend of mine shared with me and so I want to share it with you.

Using this technique can help to teach you how to filter experiences and comments, so you can better respect your feelings and yourself. And this also introduces the idea of sometimes an attack that we’re experiencing being from us and not from another person at all. And it’s called the jelly wall. When an unwanted self-critical thought creeps in or a difficult comment from someone else arrives – imagine the jelly wall between you and the comment or the person. Stop and slow down all the input coming towards you so you can ask, “Is this true or not true?” and “If it is, is this about me or not about me?” This allows you to let it in or just to let it go. The comment or feedback or attack may not be true in the here and now or at all and it may not be your stuff but the other person’s. To do this well, as with all new techniques, you need to practice, and ideally combo it with the emotionally smart response I mentioned earlier so that you can respond and not react.

A simpler and another really effective version of this approach – to keep you safe and well and protected from others’ comments or attacks – is to think of a bubble around you, which has flexible, pliable boundaries but which doesn’t burst even when pushed on. So when someone is getting up in your space and you feel attacked, let them stay on the other side of the bubble – they can get really close but they can’t burst it and in the end, watch them bounce off and retreat away. That technique can work to buy you time and make you feel that you have control in the situation. And it comes from another really good coach friend of mine.

So there’s my tips on self protection and keeping yourself safe when you’re under attack – learn to respond and not react, empathise, hear the feedback and keep your distance using jelly or a bubble.

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