How NOT to Deal With Criticism
We face criticism from all sorts of angles, both in our professional and in our personal lives. It never ceases to amaze me how often complete strangers will offer up advice on everything from parenting skills, to recipe enhancements, to the exact right way to get from point A to point B. Everyone is an expert.
But while you can sometimes shrug off a critical remark, you don’t forget it. At least I don’t. To this day, I remember one of my high school friends poking fun at my stick-straight legs saying, “God took rulers and drew your legs.” That was almost 20 years ago.
Some people offer up constructive criticism in a kind and gentle way. Others are more abrupt and brisk. As a writer and editor, I’m used to harsh criticism about my writing. I actually had one editor hit me on the head with a rolled up newspaper when I did something terrifically boneheaded as a newbie. That was humiliating.
I actually had one editor hit me on the head with a rolled up newspaper when I did something terrifically boneheaded as a newbie.
As a freelancer, we meed to have a thick skin—how else are we going to deal with all those rejection letters? But it’s hard, really hard sometimes, to keep your cool.
Here’s an example of how NOT to deal with criticism:
I worked with a freelance writer who handled a monthly column for a bit at the magazine I edit. She was new to us, but had been writing for the local newspaper for years. She frequently took issue with how I edited her pieces, and had no trouble letting me know, via email, how much she disagreed with my critique of her stories. A pattern started developing where she would send me a scathingly mean email, questioning my intelligence and experience, followed by a very nice apology email from her about her earlier email.
When I would get these harsh emails, my blood would boil. I learned to wait for the second email apologizing for her behavior and respond to that email—not that it made me any less upset about the first one.
After a few months of this, I had it. I was the editor here and I was the one in charge. I felt that I was constantly having to explain my edits to her and was always ducking and taking cover, expecting the worst reaction. I stopped giving her assignments. And she stopped emailing me. Not a great way to end a writer/editor relationship, but that’s how it happened.
When I read this blog post about dealing with criticism by Pamela Slim on her blog, Escape From Cubicle Nation, I knowingly smiled. Slim’s neighbors had been leaving her aggressive notes about her dogs pasted to her front door and lamppost written in bold, red ink.
Passive aggressive much?
Her first instinct, like mine usually is, included rage. Her gut reaction to her neighbor’s letters? A rapidly beating heart, shallow breathing, a string of expletives, and lots of anger.
It’s usually at this point in the anger game where I grind my teeth and even cry. I don’t cry often, but when I’m really mad and frustrated—the levees break and I can’t hold back the tears.
Slim did three things before she picked up the phone to call her neighbor. And these four things are a great idea to do before you deal with any criticism:
Figure out what their criticism refers to and the source of their information. Who is the person offering up such criticism—are they an expert in what they are criticizing you about?
In my own investigation process about the barking issue, I will methodically go around to every house in our square block and ask each owner if they a) can hear our dogs barking from inside b) consider it an annoyance c) desire us to do anything about it. I will also review the homeowner’s policies about pets, as well as local noise ordinances. —Pamela Slim
Are there valid points in the criticism? Did you say something inaccurate or omit something important that you shouldn’t have?
I have never, ever, received scathing criticism that did not also include at least one valid point in it. Most has about half a dozen, if you are open to seeing them. —Pamela Slim
Engage an Expert for Feedback
Talk to someone who can help you figure out if you were at fault, if you were right, and offer support. My husband is particularly good at this, because he doesn’t always take my side—especially if I am in the wrong. He’s not mean about it, but he helps me understand how other people could view the situation.
Decide if Engagement in Prudent
Does the criticism deserve your attention? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Engagement can sometimes be great as long as the conversation is civil and respectful, Slim says. She recommends doing it in a public way (I suggest a phone call to avoid any misinterpreting of words on the page).
Have your data available and even script the beginning of the phone call if you are worried about getting angry right away. And always assume everything is being recorded, even if recording a phone conversation is against the law where you live. Don’t say anything that you would not be comfortable saying over and over again in front of many people.
Let Go and Move on
Realize what you learned from the experience and move on. Sure, you might harbor some resentment and anger for a little while, but life goes on. Keep in mind, carrying resentment is never healthy, and can affect those around you as well as yourself.