We have a natural tendency to justify, deflect, or shut down criticism. It’s part of our usual threat reaction system: fight, flight or freeze.
Yet criticism is just a flavour of feedback, and getting feedback from others is a fundamental part of work, and life, and learning.
Giving someone feedback takes effort: there are many obstacles that the feedback-giver needs to overcome in order to get to a point where giving feedback feels ok. And therefore it serves us better to be graceful in the face of criticism.
Before giving us feedback, the person has to take a few steps out of their normal mode of operation. There are risks to assess.
How will it be received? There’s often a fear or reticence about entering into a confrontation or conflict when criticising someone. This can be enough to prevent people from sharing feedback with us, even when the power dynamics are set up in such a way that they’re clearly entitled to do so.
Is the potential benefit worth it? There’s an asymmetry in feedback, where we’re really the ones who gain the most from others’ feedback, but they’re the ones who have to put the effort in.
Is it justified? After all, feedback is often subjective - it’s just what they’ve observed or how they feel or their priorities.
And then there’s the effort of trying to pick the right time and phrase it diplomatically enough that it lands effectively but doesn’t hurt our feelings.
Intention, observation, impact
When I think about receiving feedback, I fix on the fact that there is no other way I could receive this information.
My inner world only contains my intentions, my perceptions, and the impact things have on me.
Other people have their own perceptions, intentions, and the impact things have on them.
Others can grant us an insight into this by sharing their perceptions, and our impact on them, through feedback. It’s the only way we can truly get an insight into their sphere of being.
So when someone gives us feedback, they’re granting access to something that’s otherwise obscure and inaccessible to us.
How we should respond
There are three steps to gracefully handling criticism, demonstrating we’re open to it, and learning from it.
Acknowledge that the other person has provided us with otherwise inaccessible information.
Also, acknowledge that it takes effort and risk to share feedback or criticism.
This is crucial to start to build a virtuous cycle - if we can demonstrate that we understand the act of generosity and the effort to give us criticism, we start to erode one of the obstacles to getting more criticism.
Even if it’s unpleasant, a simple “thank you for sharing that with me” goes a long way.
It’s helpful, too, to understand that acknowledging it doesn’t immediately mean we need to do something with it. I’m now comfortable diving into the next two steps immediately, but before that I used to indicate that I’d need some time to process and reflect before following up with the feedback-giver.
Once we’re ready, it really pays off to ask further questions. The better we understand the impact and perception of our behaviours, the better equipped we are to make use of the feedback.
Similarly, this helps build a relationship with the giver of feedback because we can help them overcome the “is it worth it” obstacle if we do some of the work.
Often we receive criticism that’s vague or couched in ‘sometimes’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘kind of’. With an open mind, and centred on discovering more information from the other person’s world, we can learn more and faster.
The crucial piece here is working with the feedback-giver. Even if the criticism they’ve given feels personal or super subjective, there’s a grain of something useful within it.
If we can get to a point where they’ve shared a couple of examples, they’ve explained how it impacts them, their perception of us when we do whatever the thing is that we’re being criticised for, we can learn so much more.
Now we’ve asked a bunch of questions, we understand where the feedback is coming from and we’re better able to assess it.
What can we do with criticism?
Disregard it entirely. Maybe it’s a one-off situation. Perhaps we don’t feel it’s valid at all. Perhaps there’s nothing we’d do differently given the circumstances. It’s a completely legitimate option!
Acknowledge, and avoid being in situations that might lead to repeating it. For instance, I am not great with attentively handling a large volume of detailed tasks, so now I just avoid it as much as possible. I delegate to others or automate.
Accept, internalise and improve. We don’t need to fix all our flaws straight away. Incremental improvement works. And, crucially, we’re not alone on this.
I’ve absolutely learnt a ton about myself, and others, and how I work with them, through taking this approach to criticism. And with others’ help, specifically with the guidance of the people who give me that feedback, I’ve always been able to build a plan to improve, to get their help and support and advice on how to do better, and to fundamentally become a less frustrating person to work with or live with or spend time with.
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