Criticism stings when it has a ring of truth. It stings even more when it doesn’t.
How you respond to criticism determines if you’ll end up better or bitter.
Some criticism we ask for. “How did I do? And please be brutally honest!” Feedback is so much easier to take when we’re the ones asking for it.
But other times, people just spontaneously offer us feedback, and it’s difficult to absorb if we’re not prepared to receive it. Let me share a few tips that I try to practice when I receive unsolicited feedback and criticism.
1. Consider the source.
It’s an oldie, but a goodie. One of my children told me that her teacher was “pretty old”. When I went to school, I expected to meet a wrinkled woman with her grey hair in a bun. Turns out, I’ll bet the 27-year old teacher’s mother is younger than I am! Turns out, “pretty old” is relative.
Feedback, too, is relative. When I respect the person providing me with feedback, I try to be gracious and say, “THANK YOU.” With practice, you can do this even when you don’t mean it or actively want the feedback. It’s called “Fake it until you make it.” If you acknowledge the feedback and express appreciation based on the assumption that it’s been provided to make you BETTER, you see it as a gift, not a slap. When my wife gives me feedback on my work performance, it means something to me. I don’t question her motives, because I know that she’s squarely on my team and wants to help bring out the best in me.
But when I don’t know the source of the criticism, or if I know the source and found it to be unreliable, I treat it as an outlier. That doesn’t mean I discard it. But I refuse to accept it–and that means that I refuse to internalize it, obsess about it, and give it space in my head–unless I have more information to go on.
Recently, someone offered some criticism after I spoke:
“The room was freezing. I don’t know how anyone could be expect to pay attention!”
Once I got done crying…
Seriously, this employee was a prisoner in the room, mandated to attend by her boss who set up the meeting. Had Jesus been the speaker, He could have walked on water while turning it to wine, and still this woman would have given the same negative feedback. I offered this woman an “I’m sorry you were uncomfortable. Thanks for coming.” And I haven’t thought about her since today.
Which leads me to–
2. Consider its validity.
My mother hates fish. She hates the smell, taste, and texture of it. On some level, the concept of consuming fish makes my mother ill. So fish is gross, right? No, of course not. My mother has an opinion based on her tastes, preferences, experiences, etc. Even though I love and respect my mother (the source giving me feedback), I have to consider the validity of her specific feedback.
Likewise, when I receive criticism even from someone I respect, I consider if the feedback is based on absolute truth, or if it’s just another opinion. Much of the time, people share opinions, not truths. And when I hear that, I say aloud or to myself, “That’s an interesting opinion.”
[NOTE: If my boss shares negative feedback with me, I can choose to treat it as a TRUTH and act on it, or I can choose view it as an opinion and ignore it. There’s no wrong approach as long as I’m willing to accept the consequences.]
3. Consider the relevance on RIGHT NOW
Did you know that most of us think we are better at multitasking than we really are? Imagine trying to improve your performance at work by improving 10 things at once. Imagine seeing your child standing unsupported for the first time, and then plopping the kid on a bicycle and saying, “Okay! Now that you’ve perfected your balance…”
It doesn’t work that way. We learn one skills, and we master skill before moving on to the next skill.
I focus on improving one thing at a time. That means sometimes I get criticism about my performance from a reliable source. However, if I’ve been focusing on improving something else at the time, I don’t allow myself to go crazy. Instead I say, “You’re right, and I agree. I’ll be working on that next.”
Do you know why I can be cheerful hearing that kind of criticism? It means that what I was trying to improve didn’t stand out as a problem. It means I’m getting better.
You can’t stop people from giving you unwanted negative feedback or criticism, but you do control your response. Try saying “Thank you!”, “No thank you,” “That’s an interesting opinion,” or “It’s on my list!” Not all that glitters is gold. And not every “nugget” someone offers you is worth its weight in gold. Be discerning and selective with what you allow to bounce around inside your head. Don’t allow criticism to take up space in your head that you could otherwise use to become awesome.