In the professional world, criticism—constructive or otherwise—is everywhere. From your boss giving you feedback at your annual review to the troll on your blog telling you about all the things you’re doing wrong, it’s impossible to avoid and hard to know when to take it seriously.
Because the thing is, you don’t always want to ignore the comments on things you’re doing wrong and things you could be doing better. Even if they come at you in a less-than-ideal way, really hearing out and considering the negatives (and how you can improve them) can be a powerful way for you to become an even better professional.
But how can you easily identify a useful critique from an insult not worthy of your time or energy? Start by considering carefully the person it’s coming from.
In an effort to better understand haters, writer Ann Friedman created the Disapproval Matrix, an easy framework for getting at the motives of anyone giving you feedback. The matrix ranks people based on a combination of how rational or irrational they are and how well they know you and your work.
Read on for an understanding of Friedman’s four main disapprovers—and some ideas for how to handle what each one is throwing at you.
1. The Straight Haters
These are the people who are irrational and don’t know you or your work very well. We’re talking the random trolls who say horrible things in the comments of your blog posts; the people who see you speak once at a conference and tweet something harsh; the co-worker in another department who you’ve never worked with but puts down your work.
How to Deal
Don’t. Ignore these critics, because at the end of the day, they give you no value. Friedman puts it best:
Folks in this quadrant are easy to write off because they’re counterproductive and you don’t even know them. Ignore! Engaging won’t make you any better at what you do. And then rest easy, because having haters is proof your work is finding a wide audience and is sparking conversation. Own it.
2. The Frenemies
These people do know you or your work well but are irrational and are out to undermine you. Think the co-worker who’s always trying to compete with you for some reason, the supervisor who you’ve never quite gotten along with, and the like.
How to Deal
In this situation, it’s best to take Hillary Clinton’s advice: “It’s important to take criticism seriously—not personally.”
In other words, consider the feedback since this person is familiar with your work and—if they really are out to get you—are going to be looking for every little problem with it. But, consider it with a grain of salt. Ask yourself: Is this comment really about my work, or is it just a jab at me?” If it’s the former, think how you can fix it so they can’t criticize it again. If it’s the latter, ignore it and move on.
3. The Critics
These people are rational and knowledgeable about your field, but don’t know you and your work intimately: think the expert you met once at a networking event or the person you cold emailed for some advice. Even if they’re excited generally about what you’re doing, they’re going to take a hard look at your work to find places it could be improved.
How to Deal
This is probably the most important sector to really pay attention to. Since these people don’t know you well, they’re not going to be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt or glaze over any problems they see. But, since they’re not straight up haters, they’re also not just going to be negative for the sake of being negative. Instead, they’re going to give you unbiased, truly constructive criticism. Listen carefully, take it seriously, and make a plan for improving it.
4. The Lovers
These are the rational people who also know you or your work incredibly well. Your biggest fans! Your mentors! Your amazing bosses! Your friends! Your mom! (Okay, maybe she’s not totally rational.) This is probably your favorite group to get feedback from since they want you to succeed and you know they’re always on your side.
How to Deal
While this group is invested in you and is likely going to give you feedback because they want you to improve, some of them may find it harder to give you the tough words you need to hear (because they really like you!). They may try to sugarcoat things or not always be willing to tell you things straight. Do everything you can to solicit their valuable feedback by making it clear that you want all of their thoughts—good and bad.
All in all, the right constructive criticism can be the most powerful tool in your professional arsenal. Just make sure you’re paying attention to the right people—and not letting the wrong ones get in your way.