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Tips & Tactics for Personal Development

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4 tips on benefiting from critical feedback

As I mentioned in my last post, no one likes receiving criticism. It often hurts to hear it, and our instinctive reactions to it are nearly always negative. We shut down, we argue, we get angry and stomp off. What we frequently don’t do is learn to put up with the discomfort long enough to see if there is value in what is being said. So here are some tips I have found useful when facing critical feedback.

1. Assume good motives. It’s very easy to assume that people who criticize us don’t like us. This may not be the case. They may actually want us to do better in the future, so they are offering us directions on how to grow. If we assume that all criticism comes from nasty motives we’ll miss any good information because we are too busy trying to defend ourselves.

2. Say thank you. I learned this one from Marshall Goldsmith. He explains this more fully in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Even if you don’t agree with what it being said, show some gratitude for the fact that another person is trying to help you. It’s really disarming for the other person, and can help both sides relax and focus.

3. Be aware of your own emotional state at the time. If you are upset over something, that’s probably not the best time to listen to someone criticize you. Ask to meet again at a later time and explain that you want the meeting to be effective, but this is not a good time.

4. Ask how the criticism will help you perform better. Ask for specific examples of what you need to do differently. It’s no help when someone says you need to show more empathy. They need to be able to give you specific examples of how to do this effectively. Telling someone to be nice is insulting, as most people don’t generally set out to be mean, although they may not be aware of how their behavior impacts others.

If we learn to live with a little discomfort when facing critical feedback, we can benefit from it and also build stronger relationships with people who are in a position to help us. In the long run my goal for myself is to have strong enough relationships with the critical people in my life that giving and receiving critical feedback ceases to be traumatic, and that it happens in small doses or minor course corrections on an ongoing – even daily – basis. Turning a critic into an ally is a huge win for both sides.


I don’t mean to criticize but…

I don’t know anyone who likes to be criticized. Even if we know that we need to improve, we don’t necessarily want to hear from others how they think we should do this. On the other hand, having another person’s perspective can be very valuable. So how can we get the benefit of another point of view without the distress that so often accompanies criticism from others?

I believe the key to resolving this paradox involves three key factors: Genuine concern for the individuals involved, an awareness of one’s own emotional state, and a clear sight of the goals that need to be accomplished and how any criticism aids in reaching this goal. Let’s break these down further.

Genuine concern for the individuals who are receiving the criticism means respecting them as human beings with strengths, weaknesses and goals of their own, and as valuable contributors to the group. It means that before we try to give them feedback to help them improve, we take the time to find out what they are working on in their own life, where they are struggling, and where they lack the skill or drive to improve. It may be that they are not ready to benefit from our words of wisdom, and in this case we’ll need to learn more about them before our feedback can truly help them. Giving critical feedback without first doing this can be very harmful, and will severely limit their ability to hear what we say.

An awareness of our own emotional state means that we don’t allow our own emotional discomfort to drive the conversation or influence its timing. If thinking about giving feedback to someone makes us feel distressed, we can be sure that this distress will be transmitted to the other person and will undermine any help we might otherwise offer. If we are initiating the conversation, we need to be in an balanced emotional state before we begin. If this isn’t possible, we need to be upfront with the other person about how we are feeling, let them know that we have something that needs to be said, and schedule a later time to meet.

A clear sight of what needs to be accomplished and how giving feedback to an individual will assist in reaching this goal means that we think through what we are planning to say and deliberately tie it back to the individual or team goals. The person needs to see how the feedback will help them be a better team player. If they don’t see this clearly, they may well take your feedback as a personal attack.

Those on the receiving end of critical feedback also have a responsibility to make these conversations as effective and painless as possible. More on that in another post.

Here’s a blog entry by Tony Schwartz that got me thinking about this topic:

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