Some time ago now, at the end of a nice visit from my parents, my Dad patted his hand on my belly and commented that it looked like it was getting bigger. I laughed it off and pleasantly we said goodbye but I admit that I was hurt by the criticism and reacted to my Dad daring to do that. He had touched a nerve as I had been trying to lose weight but was not succeeding very well. Instead of my energy going into being angry with my Dad – I used that energy to realise that he had a point and was only making it because he cared. So, along with other motivational factors, I learnt from it and re-focused my exercise routine and diet. Doing this was not easy and it took effort but it helped me to try harder with my fitness. Dad, if you’re reading this, I now don’t want a long list of feedback from you!
“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” Norman Vincent Peale
Are we living in an age where clear feedback tends to be non-existent because we too easily take offence and managers are trained to provide constructive criticism and to sugar coat bad news? The other extreme can happen online where remote and unconnected people are quick to provide cutting feedback and we see how quickly that can get out of control. If we have become less able to receive feedback and criticism, are we missing out on a potential source of help in life? So here are some suggestions for how we can be better at taking on criticism and feedback:
1. Stop Your First Reaction or impulse which is likely to be highly emotional. It is normal for us all to react negatively when someone offers us feedback that is less than praise. Pause! Take a deep breath and try to let that auto-defence response come and go. Now when that emotional response has passed and you are thinking clearly again, then you can decide how to take it.
2. Dont Shoot The Messenger, no matter how angry it made you. The feedback may be well-intentioned and worthwhile, or it may not. Everyone has bad days and your feedback may have resulted from bad news being received by your criticiser. If you need to, simply ask for clarification by asking a question so the issue can be identified more specifically. Even if they were meaning to try and hurt you, don’t give them the pleasure of reacting. Your best reaction is to thank them for the feedback, much better than seeking revenge or attacking them.
“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” Dale Carnegie
3. Reframe It Positively, by finding something constructive in the situation or feedback. I know that I can find the positive in almost any situation. This can be frustrating sometimes to those around me but it is a great skill to learn. If I’m stuck in quarantine/lockdown, I have the chance to clear out my old filing and paperwork. If I’m stuck in bed with the flu, I get the chance to rest up and watch some box-sets. If we react defensively to every bit of criticism or we justify our actions to all feedback, we may be missing out on another useful perspective.
4. Actively Seeking Feedback & Criticism, may sound foreign to you, but what if we viewed all feedback as a means to learn and improve? Perhaps then we would welcome the opinions of others. In this recent podcast interview with Tom Bilyeu, he describes his mindset for dealing with feedback; ‘when people are chucking rocks at your head, think of them as actually being gold nuggets or bricks, you can take that gold to the bank, that brick and build a house…take it…if you build your identity around being a learner…’ [Full podcast interview with Rangan Chatterjee here – quote at around 33min]. You could be getting some useful feedback and information, and even some good motivation to help you grow.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Winston Churchill
5. Check Your Ego, and make sure it is not getting in the way. We might be programmed to be competitive so we hate looking like someone has got the better of us, or we hate making mistakes so can’t stand the thought of someone else spotting an error. These psychological character elements are unhelpful so try and manage them. We also should watch out for and fight our own Confirmation Bias (where we only seek feedback confirming our current belief and refuse anything opposing that bias) and our Fundamental Attribution Error where we are programmed to blame ‘the circumstances’ when we fail at something (bad workman blames his tools) and we give ourselves the credit when we succeed. It can also help to practise ignoring anything implied as ‘personal’ in the feedback that might be upsetting. Search for anything useful in the message and ignore anything that you feel is a personal attack. This all makes you the better person, in so many ways!
A man interrupted one of the Buddha’s lectures with a flood of abuse. Buddha waited until he had finished and then asked him: ‘If a man offered a gift to another but the gift was declined, to whom would the gift belong?’ ‘To the one who offered it’, said the man. ‘Then,’ said the Buddha, ‘I decline to accept your abuse and request you to keep it for yourself.’
6. Now Act On What You Have Learnt by taking away what was helpful and doing something about it. These techniques won’t work unless you want to improve yourself and grow – you have to want to change. Socrates taught the importance of desire to a young man who demanded, “Tell me all you know so that I might be as wise as you and become a great success”. So he took him to the ocean and both waded in deep. The old man pushed his head under the water and held it there. He held it whilst the young man thrashed and tried to get back up so he could breathe. He did this three times and finally on the last time said, “When you want to learn what I know as much as you want to breathe like that then you will be a success”.
“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” Aristotle
When was a time that you reacted emotionally to feedback from someone else? By using the steps above, what could you have learnt from the situation? What will you do next time someone criticises you?
Whilst the smell of fertiliser might be more than awful, it helps the plants to grow!!
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