Taking criticism is hard. I don’t care what anyone else says, anytime we find ourselves under scrutiny, our natural instincts take over. Shields up! Our defenses engage and the fight or flight response surges through us. The key to being successful in any endeavor depends on how well you take criticism.
When I set out to become a 911 Operator, I had no idea what I was jumping into. The training process turned out to be the hardest thing I ever tackled. Even now, eighteen years later, I still believe it was the hardest part of the job. When lives are on the line, simple mistakes have catastrophic repercussions. There wasn’t always time for my trainer to coddle my feelings and deliver feedback in the typical “sandwich” method – positive, negative, positive. Many days I left work feeling like I’d spent the day in the boxing ring. The next day, I’d go back for another beating.
After having gone through that, I thought I’d be more than able to handle critiques on my writing. And maybe, just maybe, I was a little more prepared to hear it. Guess what? I found out I was still emotional when receiving feedback! These weren’t good emotions either. They were the stomach dropping, face flushing, wanting to fight back or hide in a corner kind of feelings.
That’s when I learned, whenever I’m working on something I am passionate about I will always have those feelings. No matter how much I try to think opinions on my work don’t matter. Deep down, I know they do. What I took away from the experience was this: Successful people know how to control these responses. Successful people listen to the feedback and use it to improve the quality of their work. This ability separates those who are good at what they do and those who are great. But, it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, human nature fights against us every time. Being able to control these responses is the game changer.
It sounds so simple. Yet, anytime we deal with unwanted emotional responses, it’s never simple. Typically, when people initially receive criticism it looks something like this:
- The Defender – Shields up! Arms cross, jaw set, stare down commences. DO NOT MESS WITH ME.
- The Excuser – Leans in, listens intently, then responds will all the reasons someone else made them do it.
- The Dummy – Eyes widen (who me?), bat’s eyelashes, then responds with, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” These people are not dumb. It’s just easier to pretend to be.
- The Mute -Blank stare, no reaction. No one knows for sure if they are listening at all.
So, how do we learn to take criticism? First of all, there is a big difference between solicited vs. unsolicited feedback. When we ask someone for a critique, we’ve had time to prepare ourselves. After all, we’ve asked for this. We armor up our hearts and prepare for the beating. Unsolicited feedback typically is unexpected and we never have time to ready ourselves. Funny thing is, unsolicited feedback is often the most helpful.
Most of the time, people don’t like to give critiques. No one wants to hurt your feelings. In fact, they often keep little glimmers of knowledge to themselves. These glimmers could easily improve the quality of your work if you knew them. But people want to be nice. And nice people don’t criticize. When someone breaks out of the “norm” and decides they really need to share something with you, LISTEN. These tidbits can make a huge difference in your success. (Of course, there always mean people in this world but that’s an entirely different post).
Each of us has a few people you trust to share opinions whether asked or not. “Yes, those pants really do make your butt look fat. You have spinach in your teeth. It looks like you need a tissue.” These nuggets of information come from a place of love and embarrassing as they may be, you listen and use the information to improve.
How should you take criticism? The best technique to get the most out of feedback is to first SHUT UP. You heard me. Say nothing. Instead, listen intently to what is being said. Don’t defend or excuse yourself. Just listen. After feedback is received, a simple thank you will show you are receptive. This is the moment you can ask clarifying questions. Again, these should not be defensive statements or excuses. This is your chance to really deconstruct the feedback and try and understand what is being said.
Next, let the words you heard simmer. Think about what was said for the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. The reason for this is simple. We cannot control having feelings when the we hear a critique. These feelings actually block your ability to interpret what was heard at that moment. Only after the feelings have faded, can we pull apart the information received and make the most of it. After it’s simmered, that’s your chance to follow up if needed.
Of course, not all feedback is equal. But before you discount anything, make sure you’ve given it the time and thought before you let it go. People whose opinion and work you respect will obviously hold more weight than those you don’t. But it doesn’t alway mean there isn’t something to be learned.
The next time you receive constructive criticism from a peer or manager remember this six-step process to help you handle the encounter with tact and grace.
Stop your first reaction.
Remember the benefit of getting feedback.
Listen for understanding.
Say thank you.
Ask questions to deconstruct the feedback.
Request time to follow up.
Remember, the feelings don’t go away, but the more you practice, the easier it gets.