Did you know that criticism can be beneficial in accomplishing more than you could have imagined possible?
Chances are if you have navigated through any professional endeavor, you have received criticism; from a colleague, a client, a boss or a customer.
Criticism differs from feedback in that criticism is not rooted in helping others to modify behavior for improved performance. It is an expression of disapproval, an act of passing judgment.
While feedback is necessary for true reflective practice, criticism is like feedback’s evil twin; criticism shrivels the objectivity of the giver and delivers cold, hard subjectivity to the receiver.
When we are on the receiving end of feedback that we perceive as negative, our first response is to defend ourselves and our viewpoint — especially if it is given by someone we dislike or deem as subsidiary. We entertain self-justifying dialogue and tell ourselves things like:
"The reason why he questioned my choice of visuals is that he lacks graphic design experience, and clearly doesn’t understand my thought process behind my creative process."
"That new intern suggested that I should run the meeting an alternative way? Hmm — she hasn’t been out of college long enough to make a school loan payment — what does she know about office politics let alone effective meetings?"
Even in the best of intentions, negative feedback can be hard for the receiver to accept. This is unfortunate and compels us to keep our supporters close, and regard our adversaries and their commentary as invisible — possibly keeping our blind spots alive and well.
We focus on our allies because surrounding ourselves with positivity not only feels good, it keeps us safe. We are told to ignore the naysayers — because what do they know anyway?
If we leave ourselves open and susceptible to other’s opinions, it means that we may be faced with unsolicited critique that may have an element of truth. Sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes it is excruciating.
Sometimes the truth hurts, and sometimes it is excruciating.
But what if buried within criticism was something that sugar-coated feedback couldn't offer us?
Over the years, I have facilitated workshops for thousands of people. My facilitation style is rich with metaphor, and I try to honor the individuality of the participants, allowing them to extract meaning for themselves and for their own unique perspective. After each session, I’ve made it my practice to consider each evaluation and make adjustments as necessary to continue to grow and evolve professionally.
I must admit however, early on in my career, I wasn’t always so level-headed. It used to take me several hours to settle down from the cascade of anxiety and doubt through my mind after reading an undesirable remark. I strived for excellence, and on some level, I thought excellence was devoid of criticism.
One day, as I sat down after a session to go over my evaluations, I scrolled through to capture the feedback that the participants had left. The majority of them were glowing:
“The best learning experience I’ve ever had”
“The presenter’s energy was SO engaging”
“This workshop shifted my thinking. She is phenomenal!”
And there, on the very last line, a participant had typed in all caps:
I felt a rush of anxiety as I momentarily lost focus on the previous, radiant comments. I started to question my approach. I started to question my talent.
Are there others out there that felt the same way?
I knew intellectually that my worthiness as a professional was not held in place by the opinion of others, or was my sense of success determined by a comment — good or bad. But because I poured myself into my work, it made me vulnerable.
I paused and found myself letting go of the internal struggle with my ego and immediately became empowered by a single action: I tried it on.
I slipped into the words written on the screen and gave myself permission to see if it fit. I asked myself some hard questions:
Is there any validity to this? In what ways does this fit? Is there any part of this that measures up? How could this viewpoint make me better?
As I examined my responses, my energy shifted and I felt relief and unexpected joy as I uncovered a jewel that was buried in my previous defensive disposition. I was no longer entangled by criticism, I was wearing it. And surprisingly, it looked great — better than ever.
The next time I facilitated that workshop, with my new epiphanies intact, I incorporated distinct, detailed information and a step-by-step approach to my usual theoretical and inspirational content.
The result was a more powerful and impactful experience for all, which made me a better facilitator. I had developed a framework that would change the trajectory of my professional life.
I’m not suggesting that every single criticism that comes your way should give you pause. Sometimes, for self-preservation, we need protection against vitriolic commentary. Sometimes people are simply mean.
If you are open and willing to see an occasional critique as an invitation to ask yourself some tough questions, however, you could find a treasure that may lead the way to transformation.
Try it on. It may not be comfortable, but you owe it to yourself and to the future of your endeavors. If it truly doesn’t fit, you can throw it off and add it to the it-doesn’t-fit-me pile. At least you would have strengthened your resolve.
The next time you receive criticism, it may be prompting you to take a closer look at yourself. Not through the typical choose-your-own-adventure lenses, but rather ones that push you to consider the facets of yourself that may have gone unexamined.
Think about it: if we always considered the insights from those who like us, think like us, and support us, we could be limiting ourselves from true innovation.
And besides, sometimes you need an update in your wardrobe.