Making Criticism Constructive

5 strategies for giving, & accepting, critique

By Sam DiGiovanna  |   Sep 20, 2018

Police officers are typically a straightforward, direct bunch. They’ll tell you when they think you’re doing something wrong, or when you could be doing it better. And mostly that’s good—we can’t afford to be dancing around one another’s feelings when we’re  in a foot pursuit or working to keep an unruly crowd in control.

What we so freely dish out, however, we first responders aren’t always so good at accepting. Being at the receiving end of criticism isn’t easy for anyone. How many times have you seen a well-meaning suggestion descend into a heated argument in the station? Sometimes that’s because we cross the line from “direct” to “blunt” or even hurtful. But often it’s because human nature makes us defensive when criticized. Criticism can also trigger negative childhood experiences of always “doing wrong” or being “in trouble.”

Pushing back against that defensive reaction is key, because criticism helps us self-reflect, set goals for development and continue our personal and professional growth. Think about driving an engine or truck company. No matter how careful you are, blind spots obscure dangers. You must pay extra attention and maintain constant awareness to avoid accidents. Our personal and professional lives are no different: Blind spots keep us from seeing the areas needed to correct unwanted conduct. That’s why we need honest feedback—yes, criticism—from family, friends and co-workers.

Instead of allowing criticism to lead you into anger and self-pity, consider these steps: 

Try to project openness—and to be open! As soon as you recognize that you’re being criticized, force yourself to take a deep breath and pause. Facial expressions and body language affect your attitude and ability to comprehend information as well as your outward image. Strive for a neutral expression. Drop your shoulders away from your ears and uncross your arms.

Focus on understanding what the person is trying to say. Don’t react yet—listen! Ask questions if needed. Often criticism is vague (“You’re always focused on yourself and not us”). Asking follow-up questions can provide a clearer picture. It also shows you are receptive, which can lead to a more productive dialogue.

Don’t judge the criticism based on who’s giving it. It’s not a contest. Remember the saying, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” (I know, we all have Apple Watches now but you get the idea.) Accurate criticism can come from the least-skilled rookie or the grumpiest veteran. Instead of focusing on who’s saying it, ask yourself whether the critique holds value. If after you’ve evaluated it with an open mind, you still feel the person is wrong, check with someone else you trust to see whether there’s any merit in the person’s comments.

Don’t promise anything you’re not ready to do. Maybe the captain tells you she thinks you’re spending too much time on your phone when in the station and it would be better for you to socialize more with the crew. Do you agree? And if so, are you ready to commit to changing? Don’t agree with what the other person is saying just to end an uncomfortable conversation. Promising you’ll change might make the other person happy in the short term, but it will just lead to more frustration if you don’t follow through. Also, some criticism is inaccurate or unfair. You don’t want to agree and promise to change and then find yourself alone thinking, “Hey, that’s not actually true at all.” Instead, commit to thinking about what was said. You can even thank them for bringing it up and acknowledge that it was probably uncomfortable for them to do so.


Showing you can accept criticism without blowing up will make you a more approachable, trusted person. Which just might lead to less criticism!


Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.

Proverbs 9:8-9

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Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.
Sam DiGiovanna

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