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Five Steps for Handling Criticism, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

This blog post’s star and inspiration . . .

I’ve got a soft spot for North Carolina—both my babies were born there—and for animals. So I was cheering when the wild horses on NC’s Outer Banks survived the recent hurricane.

Actually, their survival wasn’t unexpected—their group’s been riding out severe storms for hundreds of years.1 The crazy part’s how they did it and how any of this applies to handling criticism.

First, how did they do it?

  • They sensed air pressure changes that precede bad weather.1
  • They headed to a high point on the islands.1
  • They sheltered under oak trees.1
  • They huddled together.1
  • They faced each other, not the storm.1

It’s a survival plan seemingly coded into each wild horse. A way to overcome a physical threat. But what if the threat’s emotional? What if it’s criticism that feels as if it’s pointed straight at the heart?

Surprisingly, we can use the horses’ hurricane survival plan to also handle the perceived emotional attack of criticism. Here’s how:

Use Your Instincts

Just like our horse heroes, we can sense “stormy weather,” which in this case refers to the intention behind the criticism. It’s the aura that surrounds a comment.

So our job is to ask ourselves, “Is this person trying to be helpful or hurtful with their words?”

Go Higher

If we sense a helpful intent, we can view the comment as a path toward bringing our best selves and best work forward, in service to others and our bigger purpose. It’s how we go higher.

And if the aura’s hurtful or we’re not getting a good read on the criticism, we can do the easiest yet most difficult thing—ASK.

Example: “I hear what you’re saying and I’m not sure how to take it. Can you help me understand what you meant by that?”

When we respond directly yet respectfully to potential indirect disrespect, it brings the conversation to a higher level and allows us to keep climbing higher, too, regardless if the other person joins us in that climb.

Ground Yourself

The wild horses find shelter and security under strong oak trees. But what grounds us? Maybe it’s our faith, our compassion for the criticism owner, or our dedication to bringing forward our work.

Finding this “why” and sheltering under it helps us traverse any criticism.

Join Forces

These horses are some pretty wise animals. They know they can’t make it alone, and so they lean on each other, literally.

And guess what? We can’t make it alone either. We’re all connected, whether that initially brings us comfort or fear.

Some connections develop us through challenges that masquerade as annoyances (e.g. hurtful criticism). And other connections give us that synergistic boost toward bringing our gifts into the world.

Let’s join forces with the latter and say thank you to the former as we take the fifth step . . .

Point Toward the Good

What do you think these horses feel as they’re huddled together during a hurricane? They must sense the wind rushing past them and the rain driving at their backs—I doubt they could ignore either.

But they keep their heads pointed toward each other, not the storm. Toward the good, not the bad. And that’s how we can best handle criticism, too.

We can’t ignore comments directed at us; if we try, they’re likely to simmer in our minds indefinitely. But we can follow the previous steps that’ll allow us to address these criticisms, harvest the good ones, and let the others fly away with the wind.

Then we point ourselves toward our goal line and, once again, let loose our inner wild spirit.

(Please note that this blog post isn’t about anonymous or hateful social media comments—a different criticism beast. This is about real-world interactions with people in our everyday work, family, and social lives.)

How do you handle criticism? Share your ideas in the comments below!


1Karimi, F. (2019, Sept). The wild horses on North Carolina islands survived yet another monster storm. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/11/us/north-carolina-wild-horses-dorian-survivors-trnd/index.html


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