37

I'm not sure how to phrase this, but I think I can be overly sensitive and take things too personally.

One example was I forwarded an email to someone I work with. I didn't know their account was shared, and my boss's boss messaged me saying he saw that I just forwarded it, and that it was not courteous and unhelpful that I did not add any context or explanation of my own (I literally just hit forward because the attachments were sort of the important part). I told him that I had reached out over our instant messenger to let the receiver know the context.

I do not dispute his point. He is right it's better to give some summary or context instead of just forwarding someone an email, especially if it's part of a thread. But his criticism sort of annoyed me and distracted me for around 10 minutes. It may have been helpful if he responded letting me know if messaging them through another channel as a follow up was acceptable so I wasn't left wondering if he considers that an acceptable excuse.

How might I learn to not to take things personally and grow a thicker skin?

Additionally, I can be really bad at knowing when to "defend myself". I know usually being defensive is considered a bad thing, but sometimes it's good to clear up a misunderstanding. In this example, should I have told my boss's boss that I had messaged them through chat or just have said "OK"?

4
  • 7
    How often does this happen? Is this just one example that's part of a pattern, with this boss or with previous bosses?
    – stannius
    Feb 9, 2023 at 15:32
  • 2
    How might I learn to not to take things personally and grow a thicker skin? That's a question for interpersonal.stackexchange.com not Workplace.
    – Ian Kemp
    Feb 10, 2023 at 20:58
  • @IanKemp considering the last 6 questions were closed I'm not sure it would be a good fit. Feb 11, 2023 at 0:50
  • @stannius it depends on the job and the people I'm working with. Currently its about once every couple months. Feb 11, 2023 at 0:52

13 Answers 13

32

When you get irked try this: replay everything exactly but substitute yourself for someone else. Do this as soon as it happens so it is raw. Become an observer and see how you feel.

To not take it personally, it is helpful to take yourself personally out of it. When you can accept what happened with someone else as fine, you can then accept for yourself also.

Can work for many situations, not all of course.

6
  • 6
    I tried this and it helped! Thank you! It made me realize part of why it annoyed me is because this has only happened once and he complained about it when he normally never talks to me. In this example was it good to reply that I had messaged them through chat to give more context? In general I find it really hard to know when to "act defensive". I edited this into the question. Feb 9, 2023 at 6:47
  • 4
    This is a useful technique. I also use it if I have to deliver criticism or bad news to someone. Knowing how they might react and feel helps me deliver the message in the most understanding way. It also is useful for anticipating come-backs and responses you may have to give in return. Feb 9, 2023 at 9:50
  • 1
    Generally speaking, the less pushback/excuses to skip level bosses the better. So had it happened to me I may have done the thought experiment then reply something like, "good point, cheers X, will keep that in mind for next time". Let's then know the info received loud and clear, and that would be the end of it with no issues Don't need to defend every micro action, only the big ones
    – Chris
    Feb 9, 2023 at 12:03
  • This is the correct answer. It's not always easy to separate yourself from a situation that's caused you emotional distress, but it is almost always an excellent way to (begin to) logically understand that situation - and that understanding often allows you to put that emotional distress behind you and learn from the situation, which is the very best outcome.
    – Ian Kemp
    Feb 10, 2023 at 20:56
  • In general, "acting defensive" immediately is the wrong call. I try to respond with "I didn't expect to hear that. Give me some time to process it before responding." Stepping away and cooling down gives you a chance to think about what the real issue is and how you can address it. The goal isn't to win the argument, it's to get to something everyone can live with; defending keeps you from considering alternatives.
    – keshlam
    Feb 13, 2023 at 6:11
39

Think of it as the boss not saying things personally, but rather just giving guidance on how to do your job better. It's a business transaction - sometimes you're going the right direction, sometimes you need some (hopefully small) correction to get you back on track. You're just a car with the boss as the steering wheel, and should no more be offended by him moving the steering wheel than your car is.

That is more mental gymnastics, but if you can make it more as a normal thing than some personal attack, which it is, well, you won't take it as personally.

Sometimes a boss can be a jerk when they are adjusting the wheel, and sometimes they are so smooth you don't even notice the correction. But in either case, it's just normal, and something you do want. You want to be going the correct direction, doing things better each time, providing the company better results, always improving.

(There are people who are personally attacking, who for some reason, do not have the people skills necessary and yet are still in management. In those cases, it's better to pretend you are observing an interesting life form (a form of detachment), while you look for a job that won't drag you down.)

5
  • 4
    Now i'm stuck with the image of my boss trying to steer my wheels with horse reins.. disturbing! :D
    – Kaddath
    Feb 9, 2023 at 9:55
  • From what I've read, giving up your sense of autonomy like this would make you more upset and unhappy rather than less.
    – stannius
    Feb 9, 2023 at 15:31
  • 1
    @Kaddath - yeah, it's not the best analogy. But a good boss DOES give direction. And a bad boss will jerk you around as they go in wildly different directions. Either way, it shouldn't be taken personally -- good or bad or just ok, it's on them. Feb 9, 2023 at 16:11
  • @stannius I think it depends on the context. "Autonomy" is probably less the key word(s) here than "judgment of what is important and less important." You are there to work, to be useful to others, to make a living (or, in software, great) wage, and the little things like this shouldn't affect you that much. It's easier said than done, but I promise your life will be better if you can build habits of taking things less personally, forgetting small losses and offences, and focusing on what's important to you, be that your career, your family, your hobbies, your spirituality Feb 9, 2023 at 20:40
  • "First, think of yourself as an inanimate object and not a person. Then you'll see how the boss' actions are not personal."
    – Yakk
    Feb 12, 2023 at 13:50
11

That fact that you have some self-reflection is already a good thing, which is often necessary when evaluating human interactions.

Perhaps instead of focusing on the effect it has on you, focus on what the 'offending' party's intent might be. By putting yourself in their position, most often you'll find the intent not at all hostile.

Having said that, some people just rub you the wrong way or are uncomfortably blunt - and I personally find mulling over such an interaction for ten minutes fine - as long as it is not a daily (or weekly) occurrence. If those ten minutes really are spent ensuring the interaction won't lead to an escalation, those ten minutes are well invested.

8

grow a thicker skin

That is surely NOT the path I would recommend. If you take this path, you do not solve the problem, and additionally you create an even nastier one. You might not get offended as easily as before, but your ability to "bond" with people will go the dodo way.


I have myself "triggers" for making me angry, or loud, or whatever. There are a few steps which I think apply in most cases:

  1. Become aware of the problem. This can be a tricky one, because you cannot see yourself from inside. You need someone from outside to point the problem out to you. Even then, it might not be easily visible, so you need patience and focus to become aware of yourself.

You pretty much passed this phase, you already know you get angry.

  1. Decide that you really want to improve. Some people only know that they need to improve, but they do not want to commit.

You seem to have passed this stage too.

  1. Practice towards achieving your goal:
  • do not get angry;
  • remember to breathe; in this way, you r brain has more oxygen, and can support you better by doing a better job;
  • do not confront your "opponent" while angry; wait until you are calm enough to conduct a discussion in a civilized, professional way.
  1. Accept the fact that occasionally you will get angry no matter what. What makes the difference is your reaction to what happens, and how you handle yourself and the things / situations around you.
1
  • Growing a thicker skin might also mean for some people to swallow it in. Eventually, it's going to burst, and it's going to get ugly (i.e. you're going to release all your repressed feelings because enough is enough).
    – Clockwork
    Feb 10, 2023 at 23:47
4

Actually, I think there is a lesson here that the other answers don't mention.

You had some context - the messaging conversation - and you assumed the person who opened the email would have that same context. There are many reasons why they might not: it might be a shared account, they might have forgotten in the turmoil of a busy day, or your email might be forwarded.

If your email had started "Name, here is that email we discussed in messaging, I think you will find the attachments useful" then it would have been far more helpful. And you would not have been wrongly criticized by the person who ended up opening the email without the context.

It's a really good habit to get into throughout your business life. Don't just forward things. Don't just send documents. Drop them in the messaging app if they are that temporary. Email lives forever. People open it 6 months later when they don't remember the conversation. People forward it around. Build the habit of always adding a sentence of context. Not only would it have prevented this criticism, but it will prevent a heap of trouble over the years.

Now I know this isn't what you asked. You asked how not to be upset and distracted after being corrected. And the answer to that is, you take a minute and think about whether you might need to change some of your own processes to be a little safer from people wrongly deciding you're wrong. That gives you back some control and makes you feel better. It also makes you a better employee, and improves the opinions other people have of you. As long as you don't take it too far into the kind of constant ass-covering some people adopt, it is all good.

3
  • 1
    this is the best answer
    – StingyJack
    Feb 11, 2023 at 14:55
  • Good point. In this particular case I didn't add context to the email itself because the conversation was so remote from the area I work on, I couldn't make sense of it. So should I have literally said "I'm forwarding you this because person X told me to"? I felt it was better saying that in a direct chat in case there was more I could help with. If I had known it was a shared mailbox I probably would have chosen differently. Feb 16, 2023 at 16:46
  • Sure, I've forwarded things (often cc-ing the person who suggested it) with a note like "X asked me to pass these along to you" -- this has the advantage that the recipient can ask X questions rather than you if anything is unclear. Feb 16, 2023 at 18:39
4

I try to reframe all feedback thusly:

Initially, it might seem as though you're in a me vs them situation where someone has a problem with you. So you take it personally.

However, if you think about it, what you actually have is a them vs the problem situation. Now, assuming you also do want to improve, you can quite easily think yourself into it being a me and them vs the problem situation.

Suddenly, you're on the same side as the person giving the feedback and can be grateful because they're helping you solve the problem. They only really care about the problem, so there's nothing to take personally.

Now, this only really works in the case of constructive feedback (which from what you've said your boss is largely trying to do), if someone is just being a dick and making ad-hominem attacks then it's fair enough to take them personally. However, in the work environment that should never be the case.

Incidentally, I try and reframe issues this way in my personal relationships as well as at work and I've found it works a treat.

You can also do this when you're looking at something from the other side and you have some feedback you want to give someone else. Reframe the way you deliver the feedback so the other person knows you're not attacking them and that you're just there to try and help them fix the issue.

3

I recognize this scenario. I've been involved 6 different sides of this situation:

  1. Receiving the criticism
  2. Giving the Criticism
  3. Watching the Giver/Receiver situation occur
  4. Hearing about it after the fact from the Receiver
  5. Hearing about it after the fact from the Giver
  6. In seminars/training classes on how to do it properly

Below is a philosophy I have learned on giving or receiving constructive criticism.

First, lets start with how to GIVE constructive criticism. It may not seem relevant to your question, but knowing it's purpose, and how to do it, helps receiving it.

Oreo Cookie Method
It goes by other names also. We all know Oreo cookies have 3 parts: Cookie, Cream, Cookie. Constructive criticism (a.k.a. feed back) should also have 3 parts:

  1. A compliment/positive statement (The top cookie)
  2. The thing that needs improving, or what you did wrong, or what the problem is (the cream)
  3. The expected result in improved performance, or outcome.(The bottom cookie)

Not everyone delivers feedback in this way. However, #2 & #3 demonstrate the purpose of the feedback -- to improve performance (or some other flavor thereof). #1 is there to prevent the receiver from going into defense mode.

I want to add my own, additional "requirements" for giving criticism. It should always be

  1. Relevant
  2. Germaine
  3. Respectful

Some givers are just plain and don't do this because they think it is important to make you angry. Other givers just don't know how to do this correctly and come across as being mean.

Why this matters Knowing the purpose of constructive criticism, and how it should be delivered will help you (the receiver) determine why you are being given this feedback. In other words, it teaches you how to winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Receiving 'Constructive' Criticism
(Note: Not all criticism is constructive).

  1. The biggest, most important step is to LISTEN to what is being said. ALWAYS assume positive intent. (Remember my 3 points? #1 is Relevant).
  2. You do not need to defend yourself (at this time). It is possible to make a mistake without being wrong.
  3. There are 2 basic kinds of mistakes:
    a) Mistakes of the Mind
    b) Mistakes of the Heart
  • Mistakes of the Heart are un-intentional actions that are done in ignorance -- you just didn't know. Example: Driving 25 in a 20 zone. IF no one tells you you made a mistake, you will never know. Does it matter WHY you didn't know the speed limit? The cop giving you ticket doesn't care, nor does it matter. It only matters to YOU so that you will be able to not make the same mistake again. What did you do that led you to speeding? You need to know that.
  • Mistakes of the Mind are thing you do deliberately, knowing that it is wrong. Maybe you have a good reason, maybe you think the rules don't apply to you. Ex: You were driving 90 in a 55 zone because your kid is seriously injured and you are taking him to the hospital (-potentially- good reason). Or maybe, you think the speed limit is just there to prevent you from getting where you need to be on time (rules shouldn't apply).

The person giving the criticism may not know which type of mistake it was. Either way, there is still something to be learned.
4) Instead of defending yourself (aggressive. confrontational, behavior), ask relevant questions (passive, non-confrontational behavior).
Example: I was speeding because my kid was bleeding and in shock I needed to get him to the hospital quickly. What should I have done instead?
5) Ask questions to be sure you understand. Remember the Oreo Cookie? What is #2 (the cream), what problem/issue is the giver trying to help you improve?
6) Reflect positively. Maybe you were in the wrong. Maybe you weren't. Maybe you really do need to change your behavior/actions if you want to get along/be received as an expert. Maybe the giver is just a schmuck who likes belittling people.
Either way, it's not worth getting into a fight over.

  • If you truly were wrong, accept it, learn from it, and move on. If you try to defend yourself, you are effectively saying "I refuse to accept my mistake. I've justified it (in my mind) and will continue behaving this way." Is that the message you want to project?
  • If the giver is a jerk and deliberately tormenting you, don't argue. You will feed the givers inferiority complex and lower yourself to his level. There are enough D-bags in this world, you don't need to act like one to make a point.
  1. Every time you receive any sort of criticism, feedback, comments, etc. Remember that there is a nugget of truth in the comment, no matter how small. Find that nugget. Even if you don't agree, understand it. Why would the person make such a comment to you? What were they trying to say?
    Once you can understand this, you are in a positing to learn the lesson the giver wanted you to learn.

    $0.02
7
  • "Oreo Cookie" - AKA "the Sh*t Sandwich".
    – StingyJack
    Feb 11, 2023 at 14:54
  • Perhaps, @StingyJack, you missed the message. "If done correctly...," it is not the Sh*t Sandwich you mention. As I stated, most people don't do it correctly. If you have a fool proof method, please post it as an answer.
    – Scottie H
    Feb 13, 2023 at 16:08
  • The thing in the middle is supposed to be the undesirable portion, right? The analogy with an Oreo is confusing to me (and probably others) because I like the cream in Oreo's. I cant say the same for the other.
    – StingyJack
    Feb 13, 2023 at 18:27
  • @StingyJack If you believe that ALL feedback is bad, then you are correct. The center "cream" is really "crap" and no one wants to eat a crappy cookie. The point is, if done CORRECTLY, the feedback is going to make you better. Imagine taking guitar lessons from Eric Clapton. and he told you that you were playing wrong. Would that be "cream," or "crap?"
    – Scottie H
    Feb 23, 2023 at 17:29
  • @StingyJack Here's a great example I just found. Suppose you were the 'employee' in this scenario. Is the feedback good or bad? workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/190194/…
    – Scottie H
    Feb 23, 2023 at 22:19
3

Can I reframe this? I noticed that you (at least twice) described this as knowing when to defend your actions, or defend yourself. And I think you'd have more success if you stopped using that framing.

Instead, think of your goal as providing information to people, and making sure that everyone involved understands clearly what is happening, and is satisfied with what has happened.

If your boss' boss is a reader of certain emails, then you have an obligation that they understand the context of the email. Yes, it's extra work. Yes, it's kind of irritating. But it's part of your job.

The advantage of this point-of-view is that you are no longer being defensive - you are keeping people satisfied. So, for example, in this case you could have replied to your boss's boss "Oh, sorry, didn't realize you were involved in this email chain. This was just a follow up from a separate chat we'd had. I'll add more context next time." Of course, now you do have to add that extra context each time, but that might be a good idea anyways. It takes almost no time to add "Here are the doc's we chatted about, attached below.", and it might even make things easier for the primary recipient, reminding them of the context for the docs.

2

Some good answers here already, but let me try to answer the second part of your question - "In this example should I have told my boss's boss that I had messaged them through chat or just have said "OK"?".

One of the ways to handle a one-off critical note is to simply accept it first time it happens, no matter what. Even if your boss was wrong, as long as it's a first time occurrence, saying something along the lines of "Sure thing, boss" is the correct answer in my opinion. It's important to realise that other people also have bad days or are grumpy at times and they might not always say the right thing.

If criticism becomes more frequent, however, then you should have a 1-to-1 chat with your boss about it where you can defend yourself and explain why you do it your way. After that chat, then you could start making conclusions on whether the criticism is valid or your boss is out of touch.

Considering this was such a small issue, my guess would be that it will never be brought up again and the smart thing would be to simply move on from it.

2

First of all, most people go through this, certainly when young; and not everybody finds a solution when they get older.

Things that help:

  • Being aware that there are at least three realities overlaying each other: a) objective reality, b) your internal image of this reality, and c) their internal image of this reality. This is real, not some psychological woowoo. Not only is communication error-fraught, but each of our brains has by necessity a different context, information, character etc. into which the communication falls. All three realities are of the same value (or lets say there is no practical ordering which makes it useful to view one of them as "better" as the others), concerning your issue of how to handle these situations. It would be a wonder of some magnitude if this weren't to lead to problems, regularly.
  • Trying to put yourself into the shoes of the other person (empathy, understanding). Aside from the before-said, they might have a bad day. They might be under a lot of stress. They might have a different character (even if it may be political difficult to say, different people can be very different, and not everybody thinks the same even if they have the same information). They might be in a situation or role they do not wish to be in (Peter Principle) etc.
  • Accepting them for what they are (compassion). They might just be the type of person who shoot quickly from the hips without reflecting what their communication does to others. They might suffer for that because they lose respect or contact to people which would otherwise be a great addition to their life. They might suffer if they are indeed aware of what harm they are causing, but not able to change or talk about it. It is possible to feel for them and wish them well, even if they did you wrong or annoyed you, and interestingly, by experience, the simple act of thinking thoughts like this actively does indeed have the capability of making feelings like the one you mentioned go away.
  • Using techniques like insight/awareness meditation (which is a very reflective, non-woowoo, non-religious, non-spiritual type of activity that literally everybody can do trivially at any point of time, anywhere) will quickly give you really deep, experimental insight into the workings of your mind. You will notice that these kinds of feelings and emotions ebb and flow, that they are impermanent; that they can be focused on, or ignored, but can never successfully be suppressed; and can even be created out of thin air; that they have physical impact on your body (getting hot/cold etc.) and so on and forth.

The first is more knowledge-based; the second is an active technique you can do in the moment to get past the immediate sting; and the third is a long-term activity that helps you view reality in a more relaxed manner, generally.

2

When dealing with self-regulation, I recommend that anyone ask themselves, "What do I want to happen now?" Then, after listing the possibilities, you can evaluate if those actions are effective and if you will get what you want.

Using your example: I have been told to only forward with context.

I can message the boss and tell him he is right.
He would already believe he is right. You have reminded him that you are wrong.

I can message the boss and tell him he is right but wrong in this instance.
This is either a request to change a procedure or justify actions. The change in practice would be an entirely different evaluation and asking yourself what you want. If you are justifying your actions, then question, will this improve my relationship will my boss? If you feel this incident has severely tarnished your reputation and needs to be addressed, then you should. Evaluation of your reputation is difficult, but you should develop a process.

My evaluation process will differ from many, so with a grain of salt, consider the following possibilities. Generally speaking, mistakes that anyone could make are not damaging your reputation enough to address it. Ask if the rule you broke is written down or can be written down. The level of detail in emails cannot be prescribed easily through policy.

Is the correction a personal preference? If it is, generally, it doesn't need to be addressed. The email scenario describes a situation where everything is fine. Everyone has the information they need. If you were the boss, you could say everyone does it the way you did. The change could be argued the other way if your company prioritizes team messaging instead of email. This list goes on, but the point is a lot of requests are for preference and aren't anything anyone cares about if you do it once.

A smell test for judging the need to defend your reputation should evaluate if you are damaging somebody else reputation. Looking at the situation through a very narrow lens. The correction is a request based on your boss's lack of knowledge. He only knows what is in the email. He should assume that his team is communicating effectively. While this is unfairly true, it does leave the boss in a situation where his actions can't be justified.

Respond very briefly or not at all and correct the behaviour
The boss would already believe he is right and hopefully wouldn't need confirmation, but your milage may vary. The critical bit is that the boss has fewer issues to deal with and, more importantly, fewer issues that involve you.

Just taking the hit won't help the feeling generated from the criticism; it will give you that sense of control over the situation. Taking control tends to stop the slow burn of thinking about it all day.

1
  • Asking oneself "What do I want to happen now/next?" is genius! This disables the autopilot and lets us gain back the control over our actions in a much more conscious fashion. It disables emotions and enables strategic thinking.
    – red-shield
    Aug 29, 2023 at 6:05
1

I try to think, this is part of my job.

If I was a farmer I might get dirt all over me. I would resolve to wear protective clothing and be more careful with the cows in future, but knowing that this is what happens when you farm.

When I have an employer then they have the right to instruct and criticise me. If they tell me to do something a different way, I don't get annoyed, I think, this guy probably knows something I don't, I can learn something here. If I find my way might be better after all, I can ask politely about that.

If my employer criticises me, firstly, they have the right to, that is why they pay me and not the other way round. Secondly, maybe they are right. Maybe I should have stopped to think before I pressed Forward. Maybe I should have added a short note at the top about why I am sending this (eg "FYI", "is this what you meant?", "is this helpful?"). Even if I was completely in the right, could I have handled it better?

And then "I'm sorry, I didn't realise the accounts were shared. Are there more shared accounts I ought to know about? How should I handle this in future? Is is OK to mix messaging with email?"

1

One approach to any interaction that causes negative emotions is Non Violent Communication. I highly recommend the book by Marshall Rosenberg, but I'll summarize the important steps.

Get clear on your wants and needs

  1. Recognize the judgements you heard (not what was said, what you heard). Maybe you felt your competence attacked. Admit that that judgement hurt.
  2. List the observable facts (not your inferred intentions or how you felt).
  3. List how you felt about those facts. You mention annoyance and confusion.
  4. List your needs that weren't being met. You mentioned that you weren't certain what the boss met, thus your need for clarity or certainty weren't being met. Maybe you have a need to appear competent?
  5. Come up with a present actionable request for your boss. For example, if your need for clarity was unmet: "I'm feeling a bit confused by this. Would you be willing to clarify what your concern is? Is it that I forwarded without a summary or that I should have reached out over instant messenger?"

Empathise with their wants and needs

You can also put yourself in your boss's shoes and repeat these steps from their perspective. If I do this fairly, assuming the best about them, I find that gives me a greater appreciation for them and how to work with them.

1
  • I tried this couple of times, but this method doesn't work. This whole thing with one's needs is nonsense as per definition it takes the free will out of the equation since it's about what you need and not what you want.
    – red-shield
    Aug 29, 2023 at 5:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .