I once had a good friend called Tom, but we grew apart and didn’t see each other for years. Two years ago he lobbed on my doorstep wanting a place to live. He was about to lose his house to the bank after investing his money in racehorses.
We filled the rooms of my house with his furniture.
He stayed at my house for a week before he miraculously got his house back. Before he returned to his home I tried to discuss with him ways he could prevent the same thing happening again. He didn’t want to know. He did what you see children do: he stuck his fingers in his ears and sang, ‘La la la la la la la la la —’
He was 56 years old.
Admittedly, it’s a reflection on my ability to give advice. I did the best I could, but a more skilled person would have found a way to assist Tom.
Have you noticed that a person not open to constructive criticism suffers terribly in life, in a variety of ways? Have you met people who, when you attempt to give them a helpful hint about their inadequate social skills, become defensive? Who, when you tell them they have body odour they become annoyed, or sulk, or become critical of you? Have you given constructive criticism to a person’s project and received a rebuff for your trouble?
These are people not open to criticism.
If we can’t see the faults in our thinking or in our behaviour, we miss opportunities to grow.
It is understandable why a person would reject constructive criticism. After all, it’s not easy being human. We work hard in life to build ourselves a person and to feel comfortable with who we are. We don’t want someone telling us our faults. It is natural to feel resistant to ideas that contradict the way we see ourselves. However, if we want to grow we need to be open to criticism, and if the criticism has merit, we need to use that criticism to change our behaviour.
But wait, this book isn’t about how a person can become a ‘better person’ or ‘more actualised’, it’s about becoming resilient and increasing our core happiness. So, instead of focusing on how we can use criticism as an impetus for positive change, let’s look at another reason to allow ourselves to be criticised: to reduce our fear. When we are in the habit of accepting helpful criticism, our fear of it diminishes. So does our fear of another person’s disapproval. As a result, we reduce our capacity to become anxious and add to our resilience.
Think of when you were a young child and a doctor inserted a needle into your arm: what a violation! What fear! Over the years you learned to accept injections; you became used to them. And, although you still don’t like them, you know you benefit from them and can cope with them.
It’s the same when it comes to being open to criticism. At first, criticism hurts. What a violation! What fear! But over time, most of us mature. We become used to criticism, and although we don’t like it we know we can benefit from it, and we learn to cope with it.
But many people can’t get over their fear of criticism and recoil when they encounter it. When told their behaviour is inappropriate, or that their project is flawed, they focus not on learning from the experience, but on convincing themselves, and others, of their faultlessness. They don’t grow, and their work remains mediocre.
If we tend to avoid or reject criticism:
– we miss out on a chance to properly get to know those ‘dark bits’. That means we are more likely be influenced by them.
– If we don’t accept criticism we don’t mature, because maturity involves embracing one’s faults and learning to manage them.
– If we refuse to see our faults we can’t see how our faults affect others. As a consequence our social skills wane, and we become isolated and disconnected.
– If we don’t accept criticism we can’t become inured to it, so it hurts as much as ever.
– If we rebuff criticism of our project we miss out on a chance to improve our skills. We remain mediocre. (Twenty years ago I went to a private screening of a lengthy film, produced and directed by a man in his early twenties. The film was watchable. It was an extraordinary achievement for a person so young. Keen to encourage him, I mentioned the interminably long chase scene and suggested he shorten it. He became angry and defensive, and displayed no interest in even considering the suggestion. I was disappointed to see that his talent might be wasted. Even if my suggestion was a poor one, his inability to listen would nobble him.)
Instead of becoming impervious to criticism, be open to it. Don’t immediately defend yourself. Instead, be quiet and listen. Allow the person to finish what they are saying, no matter how difficult it is to hear it and no matter how stupid you think the criticism is. Ensure you understand the person’s point-of-view, and think before you respond.
This isn’t about learning to accept criticism, it’s about learning to listen to criticism.
Being open to criticism doesn’t mean letting the person have their say, it means actively evaluating what the person says, and, if the criticism has merit, acting upon it.
The best way to become open to criticism is to consciously search for evidence that will support the person’s point-of-view.
Harold: ‘Ali, you can’t bat, you can’t catch, and you can’t bowl.’
Ali: ‘What about you? You’re hopeless at . . .’ INCORRECT. Ali is deflecting the person’s criticism by making your own.
‘I am good at catching! Remember how I . . .’ INCORRECT. Ali is focusing on what he can do, while ignoring the criticism.
‘You are right. I can’t bat, or bowl, but I can catch.’ CORRECT. The faults have been acknowledged, presuming he can catch.
‘I’ll give your comment thought.’ CORRECT, provided he gives the comment thought.
‘I can see why you think I’m a bad batsman. My average is almost zero . . .’ GOOD, he has searched for evidence to support Harold’s claim.
‘But I still don’t agree with you . . .’ CORRECT, presuming he has honestly evaluated the criticism. Just because we are open to criticism doesn’t mean we have to agree with it.
Q. ‘What if the criticism is patently wrong?’
Still look for evidence to support the view, even though that might take only a millisecond. Get into the habit of being open to criticism, instead of automatically rejecting it.
Often the criticism is wrong. Some people provide opinions having put no thought into them. On another day they may say the opposite. I’m not asking you to use the criticism, I’m asking you to be open to receiving it. That means, listening to it carefully to see if it applies to you. Reject the advice if it doesn’t have merit.
‘Do not passively accept criticism or become a silent victim. If you do, you’ll appear to have little self-confidence and may lose the respect of others and yourself.’
Q. ‘Mark, why don’t you make the distinction between criticism and constructive criticism?’
We first have to listen to the criticism and evaluate it before we can decide how constructive it is.
‘What is the difference?’
Constructive criticism is focused on the future, so that we do better next time. Destructive criticism is focused on the past and provides no advice on how we can improve. It’s designed to make us feel bad and sap our confidence.
Someone giving us destructive criticism might use emphatic words like always, never, should.
‘You always make that mistake!’
‘You never remember to do it!’
‘You should get a grip on yourself. You should wake up.’
Or, they use harsh words:
‘Your script is hopeless.’
‘Your haircut is diabolical.’
Constructive criticism is given with care and affection. And with respect. Destructive criticism is at best thoughtless, and at worst, designed to hurt and derail. At such times we might ask ourselves, ‘What does the other person fear? In what way do they hope to benefit by being so negative? Do I need to be around this person?’
Q. ‘Should we ask for criticism?’
It’s a good idea to ask for constructive criticism, or feedback. Sometimes people are reluctant to give it, so when you ask for criticism be diplomatic. Say something like:
‘What did you like about my project? Can you give me advice on to how I can enhance it, please?’
Q. ‘What if the criticism hurts?’
Ask yourself why it hurts. Examine your ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.
‘How do we listen to criticism?’
Step 1. Don’t interrupt. Don’t argue. Don’t explain yourself. Allow the person to finish what they are saying, even if what they are saying is wrong. Aim to understand their underlying message.
Ask for examples, but if the person can’t provide them that does not mean their criticism lacks merit.
Few people take the time to give constructive criticism, so when you receive it, consider it a gift. It’s the needle going into your arm: this is the bit that hurts, the bit that violates. Your job is to get through it without reacting and without complaining.
Step 2. Summarise the person’s point-of-view after they have finished speaking. Let the person know you have listened and understood.
‘You are saying that . . . Am I correct? Is that what you mean?’
This step helps:
(i) calm you, and
(ii) prepare you.
After you have summarised the person’s opinion they might simply repeat the criticism, or state it in a different way. Don’t worry about that. That’s a good thing. They are feeling heard. If they do repeat themselves, again let them finish, and again confirm with, ‘So, you are saying that . . . Am I correct? Is that what you mean?’
When the person finally accepts that you do understand the criticism they will (hopefully) say something like, ‘Yes, that is what I’m saying.’
The person will feel pleased that you have listened carefully and given thought to what was said. They might even feel good about you and about themselves.
Step 3. Pause. Give yourself a few seconds to compose yourself.
You are not obliged to respond immediately. If you wish, say to the person: ‘Thank you for that. I’ll give what you have said some thought and get back to you later.’ (Ensure you do get back to them.)
(If you are having trouble accepting the criticism, find the bit that is true and focus on that.)
Step 4. Look for evidence that supports the criticism.
This is the step criticism-avoiders miss. In their rush to reassure themselves they look for evidence that supports their own view and contradicts the criticism. For example: If Fred says you talk too much, do not look for instances in which you said little. Instead, look for times when you did talk too much.
If necessary, ask questions to clarify what the person meant. Ask for examples.
This is another ‘needle in the arm’. It’s unpleasant. It hurts. But it has to be done. This is where we build resilience.
Step 5. Come to a conclusion. Now that you have both points of view, yours and theirs, ask yourself, Does the criticism have merit?
Step 6. Thank the person. Say,
‘Thank you.’ Or,
‘Thank you for having the courage to give me your opinion.’ Or,
‘It might have been hard for you to bring this up, so thank you for doing so.’
Now you can walk away, or go to the next step.
Step 7. If you wish, respond with something like:
‘I can see your point-of-view. You are saying that . . . However, I disagree because . . .’
‘I understand. You have changed my mind. Thank you very much.’
‘I see what you are saying. I will take what you say on board and change my behaviour.’
Step 8. Congratulate yourself for being open-minded, for being open to criticism.
‘Use positive self-talk when dealing with criticism, such as, “I’m Ok. I may have made a mistake, but learning from this error will increase my professionalism.”’
Step 9. If you wish, give the person feedback. Tell the person how their criticism helped you. Tell the person what you adopted, and about the changes you are making. Again, thank the person for having the courage to tell you.
Step 10. If the criticism is helpful, apply it. Use it to grow.
Q. ‘That’s a lot of steps just to hear criticism.’
When you are in the habit of accepting criticism the steps come easily. Use the following exercise for practise.
You have received a complaint about your business.
If people complain to you about your business they are doing you a favour. Those customers are more valuable to you than the ones who compliment you, and more valuable than the ones who refrain from complaining and vow to not return.
Yes, you might feel lousy and dispirited when you receive a complaint, but consider: if after giving thought to the complaint you find it not valid, you can simply shrug it off and move on. If you find the complaint valid you can respond quickly, positively and humbly, and create for yourself an even better business.
With this page in front of you, ask a friend to reveal to you one of your annoying faults. (Other people are more aware of our flaws than we are.)
Let’s assume your friend says: ‘You often interrupt when someone is speaking.’
(Be warned. Pick your friend and topic wisely, in case you are impervious to the tips below.)
Step 1. Listen to your friend’s criticism without interrupting. Look for the underlying message, and how your behaviour might be causing problems. Ask your friend to elaborate and give examples.
Step 2. Summarise the complaint to let your friend know that you have understood.
You are saying that I interrupt people while they are talking, and it’s rude and annoying. Is that correct?’ You might even add, ‘I can see why it’s annoying. When someone speaks they want to be taken seriously, and when I interrupt they don’t feel that I am taking them seriously.’
When your friend replies, ‘Yes, you finally understand’, you can move to the next step.
Step 3. Pause to collect your thoughts.
Step 4. Give your friend evidence that supports her criticism.
‘Yes, like last Saturday. I tended to dominate the conversation, didn’t I?’
Or: ’I can’t think of a time when I interrupted someone while they were speaking. But that’s understandable: it’s not something a person would notice.’ (That’s fair. At least you have tried to find evidence to support your friend’s claim.)
Step 5. Now that you have both points of view, come to a conclusion. Does the criticism have merit?
Step 6. Thank your friend for providing the feedback. ‘Thank you for giving me your opinion.’
Step 7. Respond: ‘I can see what you are saying. You are saying that —’
You might add: ‘You may be right. I might interrupt people when they talk. I’ll look out for it. Thanks again.’
If you disagree with the person’s opinion you have two options:
1) ‘I disagree with you, because —’ Or,
2) Say nothing. Leave them with the Thank you.
Step 8. Congratulate yourself for bothering to do the exercise, and thank your friend.
Step 9. If you like, give your friend feedback.
‘This will help me because . . .’ Step 10. If the criticism was helpful apply it in life. Use it to grow.