Learn How to "Respond" As Opposed to "Reacting" to Criticism: A Critical Key to Success at Work and In Life
Rev. Dr. Kitty Boitnott, NBCT, RScP
Heart-Centered Career Transition & Job Search Coach
It is a simple fact of life that no matter what you do, you can expect to be criticized. You will be criticized by friends and enemies alike. Alas, we live in an era filled with trolls so we run the risk of being criticized by total strangers! Because criticism is a fact of life, it is imperative that you learn how to respond as opposed to reacting to it. It is critical as a key to success both at work and in life.
I know. That's easier said than done, right?
How to accept--or reject--criticism is critical to your success and your peace of mind, however. If you tend to get upset when criticized, it may be time to take a look at what you can do to change that.
Temperamentally, some of us are more sensitive than others. You may notice a difference in how you receive criticism as opposed to a sibling, for example. There seem to be some innate traits that make some individuals less sensitive than others. It may be a quirk of personality. Maybe it's something else.
What I know is that I grew up feeling especially sensitive to it. As a result, I made it my business to avoid criticism at all costs. I worked hard to make good grades. I played nice, and I had nice friends. And for the most part, I managed to get through my youth relatively unscathed as far as criticism goes.
Some would say that I also played "small" because I went out of my way to avoid controversy. I didn't want to be "seen" for fear of being criticized.
I only grew into more confidence in myself and was willing to take on being criticized when I was able to set aside part of my vulnerable ego. That didn't happen, however, until I was in my 40's, I suspect when I started to care less about what people thought of me.
As a young person, however, I was vigilant in my attempts to avoid any negative attention. I wasn't always successful in that effort, though. The occasional remark found a soft spot that left me feeling hurt and wounded for days. There were plenty of those. I remember one such moment vividly even though it happened in college over 45 years ago. I had just completed a well-written, well-researched presentation to one of my classes. It was a literature class. I don't remember anything else about it. I don't even remember the professor's name. But I do remember what he said to me in front of my classmates as I was sitting down.
"Ms. Boitnott, I appreciate that you are from Southwest Virginia. As a result of that, you have an accent. You should be reminded that the word "get" is not pronounced as though it were "git."
I was mortified! I don't even recall using the word, "get," in the presentation. But I have never forgotten that lone criticism of my presentation that day. I am almost 66 years old, and before I say the word, "get," I remind myself to say it correctly for fear of a repeat incident.
To my credit, I did not dissolve into a puddle of tears at the criticism even though I wanted to. I was profoundly embarrassed. It occurred to me later that a more thoughtful person might have offered that "feedback" in private instead of delivering it as a stinging rebuke of my accent in front of the entire class. Perhaps that says more about the professor than it does about the way I used to pronounce the word, "get." Note that even though the incident occurred decades ago, I still remember it.
Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
I have never forgotten how that professor made me feel that day.
There are two types of criticism.
One type is meant to help. The other is meant to wound. A criticism that is offered with positive intentions should be welcomed. It is, after all, how we learn and grow.
That is one reason I like Toastmasters so much. In Toastmasters we always evaluate prepared speakers. The Evaluator usually offers a positive comment to open. Then she will offer areas of improvement or room for growth. And then he finishes up his comments on a positive note. The premise is that no one is perfect. We all have room to grow. We don't evolve or improve our performance if we are told that we are always right or that we are always performing well.
We need honest feedback if we hope to grow, learn, and improve.
Unfortunately, not everyone has had Toastmasters training. Some of our bosses and supervisors don't bother with offering any positive feedback first. They just get to what they don't like about your performance. If you have that kind of situation at work, you may need to work on the way you receive the criticism. Being defensive will not be helpful.
Just as there as two types of criticism, there are two ways to receive it.
You can respond, or you can react. Responding requires that you take a deep breath and think before you speak. Reacting means you go with your gut feeling and let your adrenaline run away with your tongue.
Responding is the much better--and often the far wiser--way to go. It takes practice to develop the skill of waiting, however. Sometimes it just requires experience. The more critical feedback you receive, the better at accepting it you will get.
If you are serious about growing yourself to be a better worker or spouse or to improve in any area in your life, you should seek out criticism.
I don't mean you go out looking for people to be mean to you. But I do suggest that you get honest feedback from people you trust.
Perhaps you can find a mentor who will serve in that role for you. Maybe you should consider hiring a coach. You need someone who will offer objective observations. Constructive feedback is never personal. It's never about how you look or about personal traits that are baked into who you are.
But, I repeat, nobody is perfect! We all have blind spots and having someone who can help us identify them can be very helpful.
In fact, having someone help you identify weak spots can help catapult you and your life to new heights.
Unfortunately, we live in a world full of mean, petty people who are always looking for our weak spots. They hang out on social media platforms ever ready to pounce on the least little thing. Even if the criticism is anonymous and groundless, it can be hurtful. That is not the kind of criticism I am recommending you seek out.
The kind of criticism that I am referring to is not a "criticism" at all. It is a neutral observation about your performance in a specific area. It is honest feedback offered objectively. Offering that kind observation can help you grow and improve.
That growth and improvement only occur, however, if you as the recipient are open to the feedback. So consider how you naturally behave when offered negative feedback. If you go-to feeling is one of hurt and defensiveness, I will offer that it's time to do some work on yourself in that area.
Everyone has room for improvement. Everyone.
With that said, it bears noting that there are ways to offer criticism and ways to avoid offering it. Dale Carnegie courses are designed to help you learn those skills. One of the basic premises of Dale Carnegie training is “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” In other words, be kind and thoughtful and consider other peoples’ feelings when offering feedback.
Too few executives and "leaders" get this type of training. As a result, they often deliver feedback in ways that cause hurt feelings even when they don't mean to. The essential thing to remember is to show respect for those you manage. If you show respect, you are more likely to receive respect.
Remember the Golden Rule? Treat others as you would like to be treated. This isn't a bad thing to remember when delivering feedback. It is good to recognize whether the recipient is a member of your work team, your spouse, a friend, or one of your children.
The takeaway here is to learn how to respond to criticism as well as how to deliver it. These skills will go a long way to bring you the success you want in your life both at home and at work.
Until next time.
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