“When I am criticized, I feel ____.”
If you are like most people, you complete the aforementioned sentence with words like, “hurt, angry, defensive, dejected, disappointed, embarrassed, put-down, failure, no good, resentful” or other words that communicate the same meaning.
Indeed, few of us come home, call up a friend, or tell our partner, “Hey, I had a great day today… I got criticized.” Few people raise their hand when I ask, “How many of you like to be criticized”
The reality is that for most people, criticism often arouses anger, anxiety, conflict in their relationships. At work, it often sours relationships with the boss, colleagues, staff, and clients too. At home, there is a plethora of research indicating that frequently mismanaged criticism is a prelude to an unhappy marriage, and parenting skills that impede (rather than enhance) a child’s development.
Yet, there is an equal amount of research that indicates giving and taking criticism productively is a key attribute of successful individuals, marriages, and organizations. Here, criticism is used as a tool to promote intimacy, enhance performance, and develop positive relationships.
What can you do to enhance your ability to take criticism productively? (Giving criticism productively will be for another day.) Perhaps hearing about one of my recent teaching experiences will get you started.
Not long ago, I gave the top 100 partners of one of the world’s largest service firms a presentation on criticism.
“What’s the best way to learn about yourself?” was the first question. It was the class opener, if you will. “Take some psychological testing,” was one response. “Go to a therapist,” was another. Somebody earnestly offered, “Reflect and take stock of yourself.”
“Here’s another,” I told them. “Ask for criticism.” My suggestion surprised the group and they became more attentive.
I explained that criticism is all around us – in our work relationships, marriages, parenting, and friends. It is everywhere. Received openly, it enhances all aspects of our lives, including making a performance appraisal more useful, making a marriage more satisfying, and developing our leadership capacities. Literally dozens of studies support that giving and taking criticism well is crucial to our success in life.
Yet, for most of us, hearing criticism about ourselves (or our work) is upsetting. In our minds, we think of criticism as a hostile attack. In our bodies, we feel it with a fear and anxiety response. This response translates into defensive behavior, which more often than not decelerates our learning and often prevents us from profiting from the information given, to say nothing of how it adds conflict to our personal relationships. How many films have you seen where criticism between daughter and mother, father and son, brothers and sisters, poisons the relationship? I can name dozens.
“Be curious about criticism,” is the prescription for regulating your defensive arousal. Adapt the attitude that “the person is telling me something he or she thinks is important. I need to know more.” This allows you to approach criticism with a friendlier attitude, and as a result, you can become more physically relaxed and learn. Curiosity “arousal” is pleasant.
To spark your curiosity and buffer your defensiveness, think of criticism as “information that can help me grow.”
Accelerate your learning by soliciting criticism from those around you. Try and phrase it positively: “What are some things that I could be doing better?” Not: “What am I doing wrong?”
When you hear the response, delay your own – which most likely, even with your new curious attitude, will be defensive. Instead, thank them for their thoughts and spend the next few days not retreating from them, but instead exploring the implications and applications of what they told you. It won’t take long for you to realize that you will not die from what you heard. Criticism is not a “lion, tiger, or bear – “Oh, my!”.
Evaluate criticism with curiosity. This attitude will help you discover the perceptions of others so that you can profit from them.
Please note: Chances are great that you will be criticized before you go to sleep. When it happens, please think about what you just read. Thank you. Leave a comment below. I would love to hear how you typically respond to criticism.