Nephew: Let me get this right: you reckon that for my core happiness to be at the level it should be, I need to be satisfying my innate need to feel safe. And, to satisfy that need I can make myself feel unsafe, by feeling vulnerable. Right so far?
Uncle: Right so far.
Nephew: If that isn’t goofy enough, you also said a good way to feel vulnerable is to allow myself to be criticised. Of course, that would make me a sitting duck to anyone wanting to be nasty. What a good plan!
Uncle: Let yourself be open to constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is given with care and respect. Destructive criticism provides no advice on how we can improve. It 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?
Nephew: Okay, we’re going with constructive criticism. But even that can be disheartening.
Uncle: Yes, we work hard in life to build ourselves a person and to feel comfortable with who we are. So, understandably we can be resistant to ideas that contradict the way we see ourselves. However, if we don’t accept our faults we miss opportunities to grow. We need to be open to criticism, and if the criticism has merit, we can use it.
Nephew: What if the criticism we receive doesn’t have merit? What if it is patently wrong?
Uncle: Still look for evidence to support the view, even though that might take only a few seconds. Get into the habit of being open to criticism instead of automatically rejecting it. I’m not asking you to believe the criticism you receive, I’m asking you to be open to receiving it. That means: listen to it carefully to see if it applies to you.
‘Do not passively accept criticism. If you do, you’ll appear to have little self-confidence and may lose the respect of others and yourself.’
Pia Christensen, teacher of assertiveness skills.
Nephew: You said we grow from accepting criticism. How do we grow from it?
Uncle: I once had a good friend called Tom, but we grew apart and didn’t see each other for years. Then one day he lobbed onto my doorstep wanting to move in. He had lost his house to the bank after ‘investing’ in race horses. We filled my home with his furniture.
Nephew: For a while you had furniture that looked good?
Uncle: Tom 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 from 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 —’
Nephew: No! How old was he?
Uncle: Fifty. Admittedly, it’s a reflection on my ability to give advice. A more skilled person might have found a way to persuade him to at least listen.
Nephew: Where is he now?
Uncle: I don’t know. He lost his house again. The point is: if we don’t listen to constructive criticism, we don’t mature, because maturity involves embracing one’s faults and learning to manage them. The people who don’t do that suffer terribly in life. 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?
Nephew: Yep to all three.
Uncle: These are people not open to criticism.
Nephew: I got that.
Uncle: When we miss out on a chance to properly get to know our ‘dark bits’, we are more likely be influenced by them.
Nephew: Yep, I got that too.
Uncle: There is an even better reason for accepting criticism: to reduce our fear. When we are in the habit of welcoming helpful criticism, our fear of it fades. So does our fear of another person’s disapproval. As a result, we reduce our capacity to become anxious.
Uncle: If we don’t accept criticism we cannot inure ourselves to it, so it continues to hurt. Then, because it hurts, we become ultra-defensive.
Nephew: Like those touchy dictators who shoot you for looking sideways at them?
Uncle: Er . . .yes.
Nephew: You’re saying if we accept criticism, we become impervious to it and it hurts less?
Uncle: Yes, and that’s why if we are open to criticism, we end up feeling safer. Think of when you were a child and a doctor inserted a needle into your arm: what a violation! What fear! Then, over the years, you learned to accept injections. You became used to them.
Nephew: I still don’t like them.
Uncle: No, but you know you benefit from them and you can endure them. That ability to cope with needles will help you in life. It’s the same with criticism. At first, criticism hurts. What a violation! What fear! But over time, most of us mature and although we don’t like criticism, we know we can benefit from it and cope with it. But some 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.
Nephew: You have convinced me already.
Uncle: Worse, on some level deep down they know they or their work is flawed, and that flaw haunts them.
Nephew: So how do we . . .
Uncle: Further, if we refuse to see our faults, we can’t see how our faults affect others. As a consequence our social skills wane, and our relationships founder, and we can become isolated and disconnected.
Nephew: Alright already. How do we open ourselves to constructive criticism? Do we ask for it?
Uncle: We can. However, sometimes people are reluctant to give it. So, be diplomatic and say something like: ‘Can you please give me advice on to how I can enhance my project?’
Nephew: I see.
Uncle: When we don’t ask for it, when someone simply presents to us their point of view, there are steps we can take. Step one would be . . .
Nephew: Wait. How many steps are there?
Uncle: I don’t know! Do you think I’ve written them down somewhere and numbered them? Am I as mad as you look? No, I figure this stuff out as I go.
Nephew: That explains a few things.
Uncle: When you ask me these questions I have to instinctively draw on what I have learned in the past, and articulate it. So give me a break!
Nephew: So, you admit you have no idea what you’re talking about?
Uncle: I admit nothing. Step one: let the person speak without interrupting them. Don’t immediately defend yourself or change the subject. Instead, 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 their point-of-view, and if you don’t, ask questions until you do.
Nephew: Should we ask for examples of what they’re talking about?
Uncle: Yes, but if Deborah cannot provide them, that does not mean her criticism lacks merit.
Nephew: Who’s Deborah?
Uncle: ‘Listening to the criticism’ is the needle going into your arm. It is the bit that hurts, the bit that violates. Your job is to get through it without reacting and without complaining.
Nephew: Who’s Deborah?
Uncle: Step two: summarise Deborah’s point-of-view after she has finished speaking. Let her know you have listened and understood. ‘Deborah, you are saying that . . . Am I correct? Is that what you mean?’
Nephew: Why would I do that?
Uncle: As you summarise her point of view it calms you. Plus, it makes sure you understand her message and it lets her understand she is being heard. She might correct you, or she might simply repeat the criticism, stating it in a different way. Don’t worry about that; that’s a good thing. Let her finish, and again confirm with, ‘So, you are saying that . . . Am I correct? Is that what you mean?’
Nephew: You’re making a production out of this.
Uncle: When Deborah finally accepts that you do understand her criticism she will, hopefully, say something like, ‘Yes, that is what I’m saying.’ She will feel pleased that you have listened carefully and given thought to what she said. She might even feel good about you and about herself.
Nephew: Okay. Well, thanks for that! Good advice.
Uncle: Step three . . .
Nephew: Step three?
Uncle: Step three: look for evidence that supports her criticism.
Nephew: That supports her criticism?!
Uncle: This is the step missed by criticism-avoiders. In their rush to reassure themselves they look for evidence that contradicts the criticism. For example: If Deborah had said 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 she meant. This is another ‘needle in the arm’. It’s unpleasant. It hurts. But it has to be done. This is where we build resilience.
Nephew: Well, that’s most interesting. I’ll be off now.
Uncle: Step four . . .
Nephew: Step four?! Just how many steps do you ‘instinctively’ envisage? Seventy three?
Uncle: Step four: thank her. ‘Deborah, thank you for giving me your opinion.’ Or, ‘It may have been hard for you to bring this up, so thank you for doing so.’ Few people take the time to give constructive criticism, so when you do receive it, consider it a gift and respond with grace.
Nephew: Who’s Grace?
Uncle: Deborah’s friend.
Nephew: But who is Deborah?
Uncle: Step five . . .
Nephew: All these steps? Just to hear a bit of criticism?!
Uncle: When you are in the habit of accepting criticism, the steps come easily and quickly.
Nephew: I guess you get criticised a lot.
Uncle: Step five . . .
Nephew: Let’s skip to step twenty-seven, shall we?
Uncle: Step five: congratulate yourself for being open to the criticism.
Nephew: Of course. How could we miss that step.
Uncle: Step six: now that you have both points of view – yours and hers – ask yourself, ‘Are the points she made valid?’ If they are, apply them.
Nephew: What if the criticism hurts? Do I matter in any of this?
Uncle: Ask yourself why it hurts. Examine your shoulds and oughts. Ask yourself, ‘Is one of my buttons being pressed?’
Nephew: What if Deborah gives me crap advice?
Uncle: Find the bit that is true, and focus on that.
Nephew: That’s it? No more steps?
Uncle: Step seven: if you wish, at some point in the future tell Deborah how her criticism helped you. Tell her what part of her advice you adopted, and about the changes you are making. Again, thank her for having the courage to tell you.
Nephew: Step eight: eat a kebab.
Uncle: Step eight: eat a kebab.
‘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.”’
Candice has received a complaint about her business. Although she doesn’t enjoy receiving complaints, she says the complainer is doing her a favour. Complainers are more valuable to her than complimenters, and more valuable to her than the people who refrain from complaining and vow to never return.
Candice knows that if she finds the complaint lacks merit, she can simply shrug and move on. If the complaint does have merit, she can respond and create for herself an even better business.
With this page in front of you, ask friend to reveal to you one of your annoying faults. (Our friends can be more aware of our flaws than we are.) For example, your friend might say something like: ‘You often interrupt when someone is speaking.’
(Be warned. Pick your friend and topic wisely. There is no need to lose a friend over this.)
Step 1. Listen to your friend’s criticism without interrupting. Then ask your friend for examples.
Step 2. Summarise the complaint to let your friend know you have understood. For example, ‘You are saying I interrupt people while they are talking, and it’s rude and annoying. Is that correct?’ You might even add why it’s annoying.
When your friend replies, ‘Yes, you finally understand’, you can move to the next step.
Step 3. If you can, provide your friend with evidence that supports her criticism. ‘Yes, like last Saturday. I tended to dominate the conversation, didn’t I?’
Step 4. Thank your friend for having the courage to provide the feedback. If you wish, and if your friend is interested, tell them why you agree or disagree, and your reasons.
Step 5. Silently congratulate yourself for bothering to do the exercise and for being open to your friend’s criticism.
Step 6. Evaluate the criticism. If it has merit, apply it and use it to grow.
Step 7. If you like, give your friend feedback. If your friend’s criticism has benefited you in some way, say so and explain why.
Step 8. Eat a kebab.