We live in a world today when words such as criticism, understanding, accommodation, and compromise are “dirty” words.
Because we are so siloed in our own belief systems, the world becomes very binary. I am right and you are wrong. Criticism is seen as an attack.
While I can’t address all of the above issues, I will attempt to shed some light on the topic of criticism.
When you think about the idea of criticism, you probably think of a situation in which..
- you were told you had messed up
- you were presented with negative issues about yourself
- you were demeaned or marginalized or felt attacked
- the person delivering the critical comments to you wasn’t very nice
All of the above examples imply an undesirable situation in which you are the target of hurtful comments directed at you by someone who may, or may not, have your best interests in mind.
This is the typical way we tend to view criticism and it is the reason that criticism has gotten a bad rap and is viewed as something we want to avoid.
In this post, I will suggest that you change your approach to criticism, utilize the concepts from the Emotions as Tools Model and strategically deploy criticism by view it as a potential source of useful information and not getting emotionally trapped by the way in which the criticism was delivered.
I am assuming that there is a relationship between you and the other person and that you are not being irrationally (or unsafely) attacked.
Let me give you an example.
I am a college professor. My students tell me that I am good at what I do and I enjoy the teaching experience.
But, it didn’t start out this way. In fact, I started teaching because I was very anxious about speaking in public.
When I first started teaching, I was terrible. I read my notes, probably bored my students half to death and avoided any feedback (or criticism) because I was not confident enough to receive it.
At one point, however, I made a crucial decision.
I decided to seek out comments from my students and viewed it as a source of information that might make me a better teacher.
From the comments of my students (favorable and unfavorable), I was able to grow as a professor.
Now, I need to say that it didn’t matter whether the student liked me or not. The reason for this is that even if a student was just being critical out of a desire to be hurtful, there might be something of value in what he, or she, said.
Put another way, wrong motivation… right information.
I also had to learn to master my own emotional response to the criticism.
Anxiety to anticipation
I received. I had to change my approach to the information I received from viewing it as a possible threat (anxiety) to viewing it as a possible source of useful information (anticipation).
Anger to acceptance
I had to change my view of the information and the source of that inforrmation not as an attack (anger) but as an opinion to be considered on its face value (acceptance).
These are some of the emotions you might need to master as you lead to deal with criticism…
Anger so that you do not get offended and Attack
Anxiety so that you do not get nervous and Avoid
Guilt so that you do not go into self-blame
Anticipation so that you remain open and receptive
Resentment is that someone has wronged or hurt you by taking advantage of you. They have an asset (power, gender, position) that you do not and they have exploited that asset to gain an advantage over you.
The Emotions as Tools Model
The Emotions as Tools Model notes that all emotions are just tools that we need to learn to master.
Each emotion conveys a message about how we perceive our surroundings. Emotional mastery happens when we accept our perception, assess the validity of the message for us in that situation, and choose an adaptive response
This approach to emotions is adaptive whether we are seeking to master our own emotions or the emotions directed at us by another person.
The Emotions as Tools Model applied to Criticism
Criticism is just a tool which conveys a message about how the individual delivering the criticism perceives the situation.
Our job in mastering criticism is two-fold.
- We need to master our own emotional response so that we avoid unnecessarily escalating the interaction and cut off communication
- We need to master our own emotional response so that we remain open to the possible message of the criticism.
The Basic Relationship Rule (BRR) and Criticism
The BRR states that “Everyone in every situation does the best they can (not the best possible) given their Model of the World (the information they have about the situaiton) and their Skill Sets (the tools they have to engage in the situation they are facing).
Remembering the BRR will help you remain open to the message by attempting, when needed, to understand and avoid judging the individual delivering the criticism (the message).
Understanding the Process of Criticism
There are two aspects of criticism:
How the criticism is delivered (Giving) and how it is received (Taking)
In our discussion so far, I have only addressed the taking aspect of criticism and I would like to explore the important characteristics involved in taking (or receiving criticism).
Regardless of how criticism is delivered (We’ll get to this below.), you always have a choice regarding what you do with the information directed at you.
In the above example of my teaching, I started out with a maladaptive approach to criticism. I avoided it.
Other maladaptive approaches to taking criticism include:
- demeaning the message and defending oneself before assessing the message for any useful content,
- demeaning or attacking the messenger,
- superficial acceptance (yes-but)
Approaching criticism from an Emotions as Tools perspective represents as adaptive receiving of criticism and involves:
- maintaining a neutral or inquisitive emotional attitude toward the message
- accepting the message as representative of the perspective of the giver and involves both his Model (how he sees you and the actions you have taken) and his skill sets (the communication tools he can use to get his message across). This is the BRR.
- assessing the message (regardless of how it is communicated) for any useful content which might help you grow
- choosing how you want to respond to the criticism including taking the person for sharing their thoughts or implementing their suggestions.
Note: You can always come back later, if necessary, and revisit the way the criticism was delivered to you, the impact of the delivery on your relationship with the person criticizing you and other interpersonal issues.
In doing the above, you have mastered the criticism and strategically deployed it as a tool to help you grow.
In case you are interested, there are adaptive and malaptive ways of giving criticism as well.
Adaptive giving of criticism involves:
- being clear that your criticism will be helpful
- using a non-judgmental communication style to deliver the criticism
- avoid blaming or assuming you know their reasons for their actions
- remaining sensitive to both their emotions and your own as you deliver your message
- clearly stating the behavior you are criticizing and what new behavior you wish to see and that they are capable of doing what you are suggesting
- making sure that your message is understood
- successfully “closing” the interaction
Maladaptive giving is
- often non-specific and
So, the next time someone criticizes you…
- Take a deep breath (or two)
- Take a physical step back from the situation.
- Assess what is going on.
As a long-time reader of this blog, this should sound very familiar to you.