How to give and receive criticism
Criticism stings. It really does.
When someone criticises us, our ego reacts immediately. We feel as though we are being belittled. Our efforts seem to be going unappreciated. We feel judged. We think we are being put down, made to feel inferior.
For all those reasons our mental walls come up. Much of the criticism being made – whether by a parent, teacher, mentor, colleague or friend – bounces off us. We become defensive, look for rebuttals and counter-arguments, or attach ulterior motives to what we are hearing. Our wounded ego concludes swiftly: ignore this person. She is deluded or just jealous. He is a bully who only sees things his way. Fight back, or walk away.
This is a mistake, one that most of us make often. Some criticism really matters. It is what allows us to grow. It makes us take stock and gives us pause. When criticism is good, it makes us think and rethink, and become better and stronger.
And yet there is a type of criticism one should not take too seriously. The trick is to know the difference.
Here’s a list of people you can safely ignore, most of the time. First, ignore the fitfully jealous. These people don’t criticise you to make you better; they criticise you to make themselves feel better. They are envious; they don’t think it’s right you have what you have; they want to wound you to put you in your place.
Next, ignore those who know very little about the issue at hand. These days everyone is an expert in everything, having just Googled it. They are ready to expound at length on what you ought to be doing with your life. As you listen, smile, while humming a ditty to yourself inside your head. There’s not much signal in this noise.
Third, ignore the absolutely certain. There’s an arrogant type of person who believes his word is the final word and his way is the superhighway. This person never entertains the possibility of being wrong. “I know that” and “Let me tell you” are the staples of their conversation. Stay away. Absolute certainty is an absolute fallacy.
Now let’s come to those people whose criticisms you should pay real attention to. First, the person who cares deeply about you. Whether this person is right or wrong is moot; the point is, they are telling you off from a position of love. Their intentions are to make you better and stronger. Listen.
Next, listen to the person who really knows a great deal about the subject. Whether or not you agree in entirety, you will always learn something worth knowing. Those who have invested much time and thought in going deep are rare. Pay attention.
Last, always listen to the wise. Some folks have observed life richly. They have ascended to a place of calm. They are never too ecstatic, never too disheartened. They have accepted life and its ebbs and flows. They have come through tough situations. They take it as it comes. They have much to teach. So learn.
There is an art, too, to giving criticism. Don’t offer it to those who have no intention of listening or changing. Deploy anger or harsh words sparingly. Don’t belittle the other person. Don’t raise your voice. Show that your intention is to build and improve the recipient, not to prove your superiority. Criticism delivered in that manner goes down smoothly, without inflaming feelings. It feels more like a hand on the arm than a slap on the face. It does the real job it is intended to do – improve the other.
Equally, know how to receive criticism. Don’t react instantly with a rejoinder. Listen keenly first, keeping your ego bridled. Work out whether what is being said is well-intentioned and coming from a place of knowledge or insight. If it is, shut everything else off and pay attention. You may be about to hear something that will take you to another level.
If you surmise that a fool or a knave or a braggart is the one talking, still keep listening. You may learn something about human nature. You may understand better the kind of person you don’t want to be become. Smile and nod, before walking away. Keep walking, though. You can’t waste your life on diatribes from dimwits.
Wise persons rarely criticise. When they do, it is only because there is no other option. Insecure persons criticise all the time. They know no other option. Which one are you, and which one do you give your precious attention to?
(Sunday Nation, 7 August 2016)
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