Maximising The Benefits Of Negative Criticism - Proteus Leadership
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Maximising The Benefits Of Negative Criticism

No one likes criticism. But it’s a fact of life. There’s simply no way you’re going to go through life without some criticism. Of course, our culture tries to minimise the impact of criticism by saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s nonsense.

Criticism always hurts. As philosopher and author Robert Fulghum says, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

Instead of trying to minimise the impact of criticism, try to maximise its benefit. In other words – try to get something out of it. Here’s what to do:

1. Don’t shut down when you get criticised

Just because someone calls you a name does not make it so. Don’t automatically accept the other person’s comment as absolute truth. And don’t build a case against yourself.

Some people, when they get criticised, let it kick their self-doubts into high gear.

A little voice from their negative past begins to say, “I knew it. I’m just no good at that and I never will be.” This won’t help you get any better. It’ll just keep you stuck in a rut.

By contrast;

2. Resist the temptation to fight back when you get criticised

It seems so natural to defend yourself or counter attack when you get criticised, but it doesn’t work. You don’t learn anything and you don’t gain anything. The criticism simply escalates in intensity – if you fight back inappropriately.

Don’t automatically assume the other person is being mean or malicious. Don’t automatically assume that he or she needs correction.

It’s like the snappy woman at the airline ticket counter who was complaining about the delay in the departure of her flight. “Young man”, she chided the ticket agent, “The way you people run this airline, a witch on a janitor’s broom could get there faster.” “Madam,” the agent said, “The runways are clear.”

Certainly, her comment was nasty and his response was clever, but the situation wouldn’t have helped either one of them in the long term. You’ve got to resist the temptation to fight verbal fire with more verbal fire.

The same can be said for marital situations. Counter attacks don’t help the situation.

If you respond correctly to criticism, however, there is a lot to be gained. You just have to see the criticism as part of your education. As poet Robert Frost said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

You need to…

3. View criticism as potentially beneficial

You could learn something about yourself. You could learn how you impact others or you could learn how to do something differently. So let the criticism prompt a little soul searching.

You could also learn something about the one who is making the criticism. You could learn that they have some keen insight, or you could learn that they are way off base. Either way, you could potentially learn something.

Charles Caleb Colton an English writer said, “We owe almost all our knowledge not to those who have agreed but to those who have differed.”

You’ll realise the potential benefit of criticism if you…

4. Look for the truth in every criticism

And there’s always some truth in what people say. After all, most people don’t go around lying. When they’re criticising you, they’re simply reporting what they see in you. They’re reporting what might need fixing or improving.

You may feel some of the people around you are just plain strange. Their comments couldn’t possibly have any truth in them. Roger Rosenblatt, the American writer once said, “Just because the person who criticises you is an idiot doesn’t make him wrong.” At the very least, a person’s criticism carries the truth of how that one person sees you. So look for the truth in every criticism.

To do so, you may need to…

5. Clarify the real issue

For example, a marital fight about which sofa to buy is probably not a fight about furniture. More likely, it’s about who makes the decisions or whose preferences are more important. If you make the mistake of thinking the fight is about furniture, you’ll have the same fight next week about dining room chairs.

Clarifying an issue may take some real digging. You may need to stop and ask yourself, “Why am I getting angry or defensive?” Or you may need to ask your critic what they’re feeling, what prompted their criticism, and how your behaviour impacts them.

Just make sure your clarifying gets you somewhere. Don’t be like the man in the hot air balloon who realised he was lost. He lowered the balloon to shout at a man on the ground and asked, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?” The man below said, “Yes, you’re in a hot-air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field.”

The balloonist remarked, “You must work in information technology.”

To which the man on the ground said, “I do.

How did you know?”

“Well,” said the balloonist, “Everything you told me is technically correct, but it’s no use to anyone.”

The man below replied, “You must work in business.” “I do,” said the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Easy,” said the man. “You don’t know where you are or where you’re going, but you expect me to be able to help.

You’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”

And finally…

6. Practice detachment when necessary

That might mean giving yourself a cooling off period before you respond to the criticism. A few hours or a few days may give you the time you need to be more objective about the issue as you sort out the truth of your situation.

After all, if you respond to the criticism by saying things you’ll later regret, you’re somewhat stuck. Even if you say you’re sorry, the other person will always wonder whether or not you really meant what you originally said.

Detachment doesn’t mean you’re cold or unfeeling. You just recognise that you and the other person are two separate individuals entitled to different feelings and needs. The more you remember this, the easier it will be to remain calm and maintain respect for the other person.

You’re going to get criticised in life. And you’re going to get criticised at work. Just don’t fight fire with fire. Learn to undertake the above practices and respond with a measured, considered skill and you will benefit more and more from each interaction.

Dy Dr. Alan Zimmerman
Published with permission from the International Institute of Directors and Managers (IIDM) –


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