Divide and conquer: how to deal with harsh criticism

We have a tendency to fixate on the most devastating of critiques, rather than focusing on the ones that offer honest, objective and useful feedback

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Is it just me or do others find themselves overly fixating on criticism about your performance?

I wasn’t sure I had a thick enough skin after the first reviews came in when I began speaking professionally (and I was in law enforcement at the time). I prepared, practised delivery and made every effort to ensure the group felt they got tremendous value for their time with me. But I was often stunned by a couple of deplorable comments in the reviews I collected.

It didn’t matter if I received 50 comments about how dynamic I was or how valuable the insights. Those two or three people who cited me as the worst experience of their lives were the few I fixated on.

I find it troubling that so many folks feel the need to anonymously and harshly criticize. Really? There was absolutely nothing good about the presentation? The majority in the room were just being polite?

Lucky for me, I had a friend who provided some great advice: “If you feel the need to hand out comment cards, do yourself a favour. Before diving in, pour yourself a large glass of wine, divide the piles into three (the high praise pile, the mediocre or you were average pile, and the worst-ever descriptors pile). Then set aside the third pile (you might need the whole bottle to get through those ones). Put the first pile in a folder for when you need an ego boost. Spend your time and effort digesting the middle pile. This is often where the most objective feedback resides and can often hold clues on how you can improve.”

Why? Because you’re neither the most amazing nor the worst so don’t spend time fixated on the extremes.

Thirteen years later, this is still great advice. I can’t improve my performance based on glowing comments or those that are just derogatory.

Recently, I had a chance to reflect on this sage advice again. I was speaking to a new group about the biases we hold and how these can limit our ability to communicate effectively. I referenced some recent social media outrage. One individual felt compelled to register their displeasure with the meeting planner. How could I be so callous as to cite such complex social issues in my speech?

Apparently this person was a great example of that communication bias I was highlighting. When we become offended, we can’t discern information. Instead, we fixate on the source of the offence.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all spent more time assuming good intent? How much less conflict would we experience?

Prior to that speech, I was prepping in the bathroom when two women paused to tell me how fabulous I looked and sounded. I joked and asked them to repeat the compliments, which they happily did. As we chatted briefly about the value of sharing good news, I commented on how important it is to leave folks better than you found them (even if you think they must already know how much you admire them).

So if you truly are offended by someone you’re in conversation with, try being more curious. If, on the other hand, you notice something fabulous, never miss the opportunity to express a sincere comment or compliment. You never know how badly someone might need to hear your words.

When you find yourself agitated by something someone has said or done, pause and assume good intent. Strive to seek clarity rather than responding with anger. Be focused on always improving the quality of engagement and avoid lashing out at others.

And if you find yourself reading critiques of a performance, divide the piles quickly and savour that glass of wine.

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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