At the back of our minds, even as we bristle with rage or blink away tears in the face of criticism, we know that when it is justified, it can have genuinely valuable results. That doesn’t mean we like hearing negative things about our behaviour, even (or especially) when we know they are true.
Most of us mess up sometimes. We are called to account in so many areas: work performance, appearance, parenting skills, family relationships, friendship issues, skills and abilities, habits, views and attitudes, values, and so on, endlessly. No wonder we don’t always get it right.
When someone tells you just how you are getting it wrong, you are immediately put under stress.
Deal with the stress of the situation by applying techniques to help your body and mind to cope with the onslaught:
- Deliberately relax your limbs and take a slow deep breath. Remember to exhale in the same way.
- Don’t react. Keep your facial expression neutral. If you need to speak, say something bland like ‘OK’ or ‘I see’.
- Delay your response, whether spoken or written, for as long as is possible and appropriate. Wait until you’ve had a good night’s sleep, or you’ve gone for a walk.
Now apply the first of the following three questions:
Question 1: Is it true?
If the answer is ‘yes’, bite the bullet. Has the criticism hit home? Accept it.
- ‘Yes, it wasn’t a good idea to start that conversation about internet dating.’
- ‘You’re right. I should have checked the figures more carefully.’
- ‘Perhaps I am too hard/soft with the kids.’
If the answer is ‘no’, challenge the statement with whatever degree of pleasantness is appropriate.
- ‘I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t (entirely) agree.’
Question 2: Is it kind?
Whether you accept the criticism or not, the speaker has revealed something negative about the way they see you. You might need to query their motives for speaking in this way.
Gentle probing will reveal if the person is coming from a positive standpoint and hopes to bring about improvement in a situation, or if they’re just having a hack at you.
- ‘What makes you say that I’m not being fair?’
- ‘I’m wondering what I’ve done to cause you to say that I’m not a team player.’
If there isn’t convincing evidence for the negative remark, don’t bother yourself with its content. Reject it with a light ‘Not how I see it’ or ‘Not me, mate.’
What is more interesting is why your critic had a pop at you. It could be they were feeling out of sorts and you were a handy target for their scratchiness. Maybe they were feeling insecure. Maybe they just don’t like you (come on, wipe those tears, it happens).
If the relationship matters to you, there is another conversation waiting, the one that begins:
- ‘Can we talk about the other day, when you said I was undermining you?’
- ‘I don’t agree that I haven’t supported your job change, but I’d like to hear how you’re feeling.’
Question 3: Is it useful?
In many circumstances, criticism is helpful. It is useful to know how your performance measures up and how your behaviour is perceived.
If criticism can lead to some kind of improvement, it may be seen as part of our growth and development.
However, change isn’t always possible. You cannot change the past any more than you can change your shoe size.
If you come under fire for previous personal or professional decisions, or for the type of education you had, respond with an expression such as:
- ‘I can’t do anything about that.’
- ‘That’s the past. Let’s think about now and the future.’
Always consider the source of the criticism. Negative feedback from someone you like, respect or admire, or from someone who is a permanent presence in your life, matters. But on the whole you could ignore anyone who constantly carps, or who has little authority or credibility in the relevant area.
So when your father who has never cooked a meal in his life tells you your new chilli with chocolate dish is weird, or when your pal who can’t decide what shoes to wear without consulting the stars, the I Ching and a Tarot reader tells you you’re too impulsive, smile sweetly and let it roll over you.
But do take just a moment or two to consider if they have a point…
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